Asbestos fibers brought home: What is a company’s duty?

Automotive technicians replacing brake pads and workers in manufacturing plants not only worked with asbestos on the job, but often brought the fibers home on their clothing. Even small amounts of asbestos and short periods of exposure can cause mesothelioma.

Strange as it might sound, a parent who worked with or around asbestos or asbestos-containing products might never develop mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis, but a child who washed his dad’s clothes, wore his contaminated clothing, or used his contaminated tools could develop such a disease decades later. This is basically what happened in a case recently decided by the Arizona Supreme Court.

Arizona limits duty based on employer-employee relationship

Ernest Quiroz’s dad worked with products and machinery that contained asbestos. The father’s clothing, tools, and car became contaminated with asbestos fibers. Quiroz (the son) breathed these fibers and decades later developed mesothelioma. His family sued the successor company of his father’s employer.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled 5 – 4 that the company did not have a duty to anyone besides its own employees. The majority held that this special relationship was required in addition to foreseeability of injury for a company to be liable.

The dissent argued that companies owe “a general duty of care” to those injured by “risk-creating conduct” even when it happens off premises.

State-by-state rulings – The Tennessee courts’ approach

Tennessee has reached the opposite conclusion. In a 2008 case, Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation Co., the state Supreme Court held an employer has a duty of reasonable care when its conduct poses an unreasonable and foreseeable risk. The Court stated that Tennessee tort law does not require a relationship analysis.

In the Satterfield case, a 25-year-old woman died of mesothelioma after being exposed to her father’s work clothing. He had worked at an Alcoa aluminum plant. The Court found Alcoa was aware asbestos dust remained on employees’ clothing and that asbestos exposure posed a foreseeable health risk to family members.

How to avoid bringing asbestos fibers home

There are still jobs that require contact with asbestos, such as plastics manufacturing, construction trades and some automotive repair positions. By taking precautions discussed in our past post, you can avoid bringing home asbestos dust.

Educational campaigns have brought greater awareness to the danger of occupational asbestos exposure and prompted safety changes in many industries. Secondary/take home exposure has not, however, received the same attention. If you or a loved one receives a mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diagnosis, but you never worked with asbestos, consider whether possible second-hand exposure is to blame.

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