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The widow of an oil company employee who claimed she developed mesothelioma—a type of cancer—after being exposed to asbestos fibers that her husband carried home on his work clothing can sue the company, the California Court of Appeal ruled.
The duty of employers to exercise ordinary care in their use of asbestos includes preventing exposure to asbestos that can be carried by the bodies and clothing of onsite workers, the court said. When it is reasonably foreseeable that workers, their clothing or personal effects will carry asbestos from the workplace to a household, employers have a duty to take reasonable care to prevent this means of transmission, the court concluded.
Wanda Beckering's late husband Frank worked at Shell's Wilmington and Dominguez facilities, primarily as a machinist, from 1954 until 1992, when he retired. He died in 2009. The Beckerings were married for 60 years. She laundered his work clothes but never visited his workplace.
On Aug. 14, 2013, Beckering filed suit against numerous defendants, including Shell, alleging she developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos brought home on her husband's clothing while he worked at Shell's facilities.
On Jan. 10, 2014, Shell filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking to have the case dismissed before trial. It asserted that it owed no duty of care to Beckering. On March 10, 2014, the trial court granted the motion, and the appellate court subsequently affirmed. That decision was appealed to the California Supreme Court.
On Dec. 1, 2016, in another case, the state Supreme Court held for the first time that an employers' duty regarding asbestos could extend to people who lived with the employee. The ruling—which expanded what had been accepted as the scope of an employer's responsibility regarding asbestos—found that when it's reasonably foreseeable that workers will carry asbestos from the workplace to household members, employers must take reasonable steps to prevent this transfer.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Complying with California Safety Standards]
On March 22, 2017, the California Supreme Court sent the Beckering case back to the Court of Appeal with directions to reconsider the issues in light of the high court's ruling. This time, the appeal court reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment, concluding that Beckering was entitled to a trial on her claim.
That exposure to asbestos is harmful to human health has been known to large-scale users of asbestos since the 1970s, and the "common sense reality" is that asbestos fibers could be carried on the person or clothing of employees to their homes and could be inhaled by household members, the appeal court noted. Businesses that use asbestos have had significant time to take preventive measures. The appeal court emphasized that an employer's duty to prevent take-home exposure extends only to members of a worker's household—those who live with the worker and are foreseeably in close and sustained contact with the worker over a significant period.
Beckering v. Shell Oil Co., Calif. Ct. App., No. B256407 (June 2, 2017).
Professional Pointer: Accepting that an employer owes a duty to members of an employee's household to take reasonable steps to protect them from asbestos exposure is only the first step in finding an employer liable for a family member's illness. The household member must also show that the employer failed to take those reasonable steps and that the failure caused the family member's illness.
Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.
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