|March 21, 2014|
Previously published on March 17, 2014
Plaintiff filed suit against thirty Defendants for take home exposure due to asbestos. Plaintiff, Joyce Farrar, alleged that asbestos exposure caused her mesothelioma. Plaintiff lived with her grandparents from the early 1950s until she married in 1974. Her grandfather, John Hentgen, was a mechanic in the construction industry who worked with or in the vicinity of asbestos-containing products from 1925 to the 1970s. During Plaintiff’s teenage years in the 1960s, she and her sister would shake out her grandfather’s work clothes, launder them, and sweep the dust from the floor.
This court’s decision is specifically focused on Plaintiff’s claims against Defendant Georgia Pacific. For a six to seven month period in the late 1960s, Plaintiff’s grandfather worked in the immediate vicinity of workers installing and sanding Georgia Pacific asbestos-containing joint compound. At trial, judgment was awarded against Georgia Pacific. Georgia Pacific appealed claiming that it had no duty to warn Ms. Farrar and that the evidence was legally insufficient to establish that its joint compound was a substantially contributing factor in causing Plaintiff’s mesothelioma. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court decision. The Court of Appeals of Maryland granted certiorari to review the decision.
The Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’ decision and found that Georgia Pacific had no duty to warn Plaintiff in the late 1960s regarding the danger of exposure to dust on her grandfather’s clothes. The court explained that based on the state of scientific research in the 1960s, Georgia Pacific could not foresee the dangers of take home exposure. The risks of take home exposure was not widely recognized until June 1972 when OSHA adopted regulations dealing specifically with the problem of taking asbestos dust home on clothing. OSHA added requirements that employers prevent employees from taking asbestos-contaminated clothing out of changing rooms.
The court further explained that even if Georgia Pacific should have foreseen back in 1968-1969 that individuals such as Plaintiff were in the zone of danger, there was no practical way that any warning given by it to an intermediary would have avoided the danger. Assuming warnings reached the workers before the 1972 OSHA regulations, workers did not really have an alternative to bringing their clothes home to be laundered unless employers or premises owners voluntarily provided laundering rooms, changing rooms, and protective clothing.
This decision sets an important precedent for limiting Defendants’ liability for household exposure in Maryland courts. First, it limits liability for take home asbestos exposure claims where the exposure occurred prior to the 1972 OSHA regulations because the harms were not foreseeable to Defendants. Further, even if the asbestos harms were foreseeable to Defendants, Defendants are not liable if there was not a practical way that they danger could have been avoided.