SAN FRANCISCO – The California Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 2 that employers using asbestos-containing products and premises containing asbestos have a legal duty to household members who are also exposed to the mineral through other persons.
"The court held that asbestos defendants have a duty toward household members of a worker exposed to asbestos," Kim Stone, Civil Justice Association of California's president, told the Northern California Record. This decision opens up California courts for a number of additional lawsuits from the household members of asbestos workers. An entire new generation of asbestos defendants – the children of asbestos workers – may now sue."
Stone discussed one case involving Johnny Kessler and his uncle, George Kessler.
"He spent about three nights a week at his uncle's home for about six years," Stone said. "During that time he was exposed to dust from his uncle's work clothes. The court did not decide whether or not the nephew was a household member; the case was remanded to the lower court for them to receive further evidence to determine whether a duty exists."
Another example offered by Stone regarded Lynne Haver, the wife of Mike Haver.
"Mike Haver worked for two years at BNSF Railway on pipe insulation that contained asbestos," she said. "Lynne, the wife, claimed exposure to asbestos though contact with her husband and the clothes he wore to work. The court held the railway did owe the wife a duty, so her lawsuit may proceed."
This decision will now allow for many more lawsuits like Haver's concerned with asbestos to proceed.
"Many makers of asbestos already went bankrupt as a result of earlier asbestos lawsuits, creating bankruptcy trusts in order to have money to compensate future victims," Stone said. "The lawsuits of today are against solvent companies whose asbestos liabilities did not cause them to go bankrupt. The Kesner/Haver reasoning will allow even more lawsuits by the household members against these still solvent companies, and even more claims against the bankruptcy trusts."
"In order to promote fairness and in order to ensure that sufficient funds will exist for future victims, California lawmakers should now promote trust transparency," Stone said. "When a lawyer sues a solvent company over asbestos exposure, he or she should have to disclose whether or not there are any claims against the bankruptcy trusts."
If everyone involved in the case knows of other bankruptcy trusts there should be no conflicted claims, Stone explained.
"If trust claims were allowed into trial as relevant evidence, juries would have all the information before rendering a verdict."
Julie Griffiths of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse also commented on the case and told the Northern California Record that "compensating exposed workers who have been harmed is a noble venture."
"This opens the door to endless frivolous lawsuits until exposure can be determined," Griffiths said. "Opening the door to people who haven’t been harmed does nothing to help those who are suffering from the very real exposure to asbestos."
Asbestos, a mineral used in an insulator is used in fire-resistant coatings, bricks, pipes, gaskets, auto brakes and other industrial uses.
"People who worked in factories, in construction, in auto shops, or in shipyards may have been exposed," Stone said.