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Taking Your Work Home: New Jersey Supreme Court Extends Liability for Workplace Exposure Beyond Spouses

In a recent unanimous decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that employer liability for employee workplace exposure may extend beyond a worker’s spouse.  On remand from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court in Brenda Ann Schwartz v. Accuratus Corporation considered whether the premises liability rule set forth in Olivo v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 186 N.J. 394 (2006), extends beyond providing a duty of care to the spouse of a worker exposed to toxic substances at his or her place of work.

After Plaintiff Brenda Ann Schwartz was diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease, Brenda and her husband, Paul, filed a complaint against Defendant Accuratus Ceramic Corporation (“Accuratus”), a ceramics facility in Warren County where Paul had worked in 1978 and 1979.  The allegations against Accuratus contained therein were based on a theory of “take-home toxic-tort liability.”  In 1979, Paul shared an apartment in Pennsylvania with a co-worker and Brenda.  Paul and Brenda married in 1980 and continued to live at the same apartment, where Paul’s co-worker also continued to reside.  It is highlighted by the Court that Brenda performed laundry and other chores at the apartment, both when she stayed with Paul prior to their marriage and after she moved in as his wife.

The Schwartzes’ complaint alleged that Accuratus employees were exposed to beryllium at the workplace, which according to the Plaintiffs, may result in cancer and other diseases of the lungs and skin.  Plaintiffs further alleged that Brenda was subject to take-home beryllium exposure from the clothing of Paul and his co-worker.  Thus, their take-home-toxin theory of liability was based in part on Brenda’s exposure to beryllium at the apartment prior to her and Paul’s marriage, in addition to the time period after their marriage.

The matter was originally filed in Pennsylvania state court and was removed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  Plaintiffs’ motion to remand was denied by the federal district court, concluding that the dispute was not a matter of concern because “neither [New Jersey nor Pennsylvania] has recognized a duty of an employer to protect a worker’s non-spouse … roommate from take-home exposure to a toxic substance.”  The court further denied Plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration, commenting that to interpret Olivo as supporting a duty to Brenda would “stretch the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision … beyond its tensile strength.”

The Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, and Accuratus filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted.  In turn, the federal district court concluded as a matter of law that Accuratus owned no duty of care to Brenda.  Following additional motion practice, the Schwartzes appealed to the Third Circuit, which asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to answer its question of law.

In a 19-page opinion penned by Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, the Court reviewed Olivo and the reasoning that led to its holding.  Anthony Olivo had been a pipe welder for Exxon Mobil, who in the course of his work, came into contact with asbestos-containing materials.  After each workday, Anthony returned home and left his work clothes for his wife, Eleanor, to launder.  Eleanor was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2000 and died thereafter.  Anthony subsequently brought a wrongful death action on the behalf of Eleanor’s estate.

In Olivo, the Court considered “whether a duty of care can be owed to one who is injured from a dangerous condition on the premises, to which the victim is exposed off-premises, devolves to a question of foreseeability of the risk of harm to that individual or identifiable class of individuals.”  Once foreseeability is established, the following factors assessing fairness, justness, and predictability are applied: (1) the relationship of the parties; (2) the nature of the attendant risk; (3) the opportunity and ability to exercise care; and (4) the public interest in the proposed solution.

The Olivo Court said that “the risk of injury to someone like Eleanor Olivo is one that should have been foreseeable to Exxon Mobil.”  The Court further concluded that fairness and justness would be served by extending off-premises liability in settings such as Olivo.  Turning to the present matter, the Court reasoned that “[t]he duty of care for take-home toxic-tort liability discussed in Olivo was not defined on the basis of Eleanor’s role as the lawfully wedded spouse to Anthony.”  Instead, the Court’s reasoning was based on the foreseeability that Eleanor was married to a worker who brought asbestos-contaminated clothing home from work and that she would be handling and laundering said clothing.

As a steward of the common law, the Court recognized “that the evolution of case law must reflect the simultaneous evolution of societal values and public policy.”  Olivo was “a step in the development of the common law, which of necessity is built case by case on individual factual circumstances.”  That being said, the Court refused to “define the contours of the duty owed to others in a take-home toxic-tort action” and stressed the need for case-by-case assessments in toxic-tort settings.  In sum, the Court held that the Olivo duty of care may extend, in appropriate circumstances, beyond the spouse of a worker exposed to the toxin that is the basis for a take-home toxic-tort theory of liability.

Lieberman & Blecher is experienced in toxic tort litigation and welcomes the opportunity to discuss your concerns with exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace.

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