By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
A company’s liability for injuries to household members exposed to toxic substances carried into the home by its employees is not necessarily limited to injured spouses, a Pennsylvania federal court determined, denying a ceramic manufacturer’s motion to dismiss a negligence claim by a woman who allegedly became ill due to her incidental contact with beryllium brought home on the clothes of her then-boyfriend and his roommate. Adhering to the case-by-case analysis recommended by the New Jersey Supreme Court in answer to a certified question arising from an appeal of the negligence claim’s earlier dismissal, the trial court on remand found that the nature of the toxin and the relationships in the case at bar were sufficient to generate a duty of care such that the injured woman’s claim against the ceramics maker could proceed to trial (Schwartz v. Accuratus Corp., March 30, 2017, Schmehl, J.).
A woman who had developed a variety of adverse health effects associated with chronic beryllium disease, which she allegedly had developed as a result of exposure to beryllium carried home from work on the shoes and clothing of her then-boyfriend/later husband and a third-party roommate, filed suit against two ceramics manufacturers where the men worked. The woman asserted various products liability claims against the companies as well as a negligence claim against one of the two, Accuratus Corp.
The parties eventually settled all of the remaining claims, leaving only the negligence claim against Accuratus, which the court initially dismissed on the basis that the company’s liability under New Jersey law for "take-home" exposure did not extend to the injured woman because she merely had been a roommate and girlfriend of the company’s employees rather than a spouse (see Products Liability Daily’s March 26, 2014 analysis). Accuratus appealed the trial court’s decision, after which a federal appellate panel certified to New Jersey’s highest court the question of whether that state’s law indeed limits take-home exposure liability to spouses.
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s response explained that the ceramics manufacturer might have a duty of care to the woman, albeit declining to specify the scope of the duty, the limits on liability, or a bright-line rule. Instead, the court instructed that a case-by-case assessment is required (see Products Liability Daily’s July 7, 2016 analysis). Based on that response, the federal appeals court vacated the earlier dismissal of the negligence claim and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the guidance provided by New Jersey’s high court.
Duty of care. The negligence claim’s original dismissal had been based on the reasoning that New Jersey precedent should be interpreted as limiting take-home liability to spouses of the employees who carry home dangerous substances from defendant employers. However, in light of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s subsequent guidance and absent a categorical bar to the injured woman’s claim as a non-spouse, the manufacturer’s motion to dismiss her negligence claim had to be denied.
The case allegedly concerned beryllium—a toxin known to travel on clothes to workers’ homes, remain dangerous in the home for some time, and cause serious damage with only minimal exposure. In that regard, the injured woman had dated her eventual husband for several months while he worked for Accuratus, frequently visiting his apartment and staying overnight. Also living in the apartment was his friend and roommate, another Accuratus employee. Even after the woman and her boyfriend were married and he left the company’s employ, she moved into the apartment previously shared by the two coworkers while the roommate still worked for Accuratus. In addition to sharing the same living space with the two men, the woman cleaned the apartment and did at least some laundry for both of them.
Taken together, the nature of the toxic substance and the relationships in the case at bar were sufficient to generate a duty of care on the part of Accuratus. To be sure, the plaintiff never had the heavy legal relationship of marriage with an employee of the company (at least not during her initial contamination—it may be that she was later exposed to re-suspended beryllium particulate that actually had been brought to the home by the man who was then her husband at the time she was exposed). But given the particular toxin’s danger with minimal exposure and potential for re-suspension into the air, the duty-creating relationship threshold in the instant case had to be considered relatively low, i.e., if Accuratus knew that just a brief exposure could cause harm, then the law should not insist upon the closest, longest, most serious relationship. Although it still might be inappropriate to impose upon the company a duty to a random stranger on a bus or an occasional visitor to an employee, a girlfriend making frequent visits and overnight stays was not too remote to entail foreseeability and create a duty.
Because the analysis had to be extremely sensitive to the particular facts of each case (as instructed by the New Jersey Supreme Court), a different conclusion might be reached at the summary judgment stage. However, the allegations were sufficient at the pleadings stage of the suit to warrant denial of the company’s motion to dismiss the woman’s negligence claim. Further, inasmuch as the only ground asserted for the earlier dismissal of the claims for exemplary damages and loss of consortium was that they were derivative of the plaintiff’s other counts, those claims also could proceed to the extent that they derived from the negligence claim.
The case is No. 12-6189.
Attorneys: Ruben Honik (Golomb & Honik, PC) for Brenda Ann Schwartz and Paul Grant Schwartz. Joseph G. Harraka, Jr. (Becker LLC) for Accuratus Corp.
Companies: Accuratus Corp.
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