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State’s High Court Lays Down New Law on Liability for Toxic Exposure

In unanimous decision, court rules that liability under certain circumstances may extend beyond worker’s spouse

richard hughes justice - nj supreme court
Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton, home of the NJ Supreme Court.

In a ruling that could increase liability for exposure to toxic substances in the workplace, the state Supreme Court handed down a decision yesterday affirming that legal responsibility may extend beyond an employee’s spouse.

The unanimous decision expands the scope of a decade-old ruling by the court involving corporate liability in the case of the wife of a worker sickened from asbestos exposure.

In deciding the case, the court noted it has recognized time and again that “the evolution of case law must reflect the simultaneous evolution of societal values and public policy.’’

The case before the justices, remanded back to them by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, involved a couple from Pennsylvania, Brenda Ann and Paul Schwartz, who filed a claim against Accuratus Corp., a ceramics facility in Washington in Warren County, after Brenda was diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease, an irreversible condition affecting lung tissue.

The complaint, initially filed in Pennsylvania state court but moved to federal jurisdiction, alleged product liability against the company where Paul worked based on the theory of take-home toxic-tort liability.

Paul’s job at Accuratus preceded the couple’s marriage, but it encompassed a period when Brenda frequently stayed at Paul’s residence, shared with another co-worker, and lived there along with the co-worker for a time after Paul and she married. The complaint alleges that workers at the company’s facility were exposed to beryllium-oxide ceramics and other materials containing beryllium.

The plaintiffs claimed Brenda was exposed to beryllium due to Paul and his colleague bringing the substance home from Accuratus on their work clothes. Originally, the federal district court ruled that neither New Jersey nor Pennsylvania had recognized the duty of an employer to protect someone who was not a worker’s spouse, citing a previous case decided by the Supreme Court in 2006. The company’s motion to dismiss was granted. The plaintiffs appealed to the Third Circuit.

In its 19-page decision, the court, in an opinion delivered by Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, cited its prior ruling in the asbestos case. Its decision then was not defined on the basis of a lawfully wedded spouse, but that she was married to a worker who brought asbestos-contaminated clothing home from work. The court found instead it was foreseeable that she would be handling and laundering the clothes, and the company could be held liable for her injuries.

In the current case, liability may extend beyond a spouse of a worker exposed to a toxic substance in proper circumstances, according to the court. Those factors include the relationship between the defendant and the injured person; the opportunity for exposure to the dangerous substance; and the employer’s knowledge of the risks inherent in exposure.

The court found, however, it could not create a “bright line rule at this time as to ‘who’s in and who’s out’ on a negligence-based take-home toxic-tort cause of action … The contours of the issue defy definition in such manner.’’

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