NJ High Court Extends Employer Liability for Asbestos Risks

May 3, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a state appellate court decision that Exxon Mobil had a duty to not only protect workers from the risks of asbestos exposure, but to protect their spouses as well.

The high court noted in its opinion that information was available as early as 1916 that plant owners should provide workers the chance to change out of their work clothes to avoid exposing those at home to hazardous substances.   In addition, the court mentioned a 1937 report specifically for the petroleum industry that warned of the hazards of contact with ‘occupational dust,’ including asbestos particles.

The appellate court, in its decision , had determined that Exxon was in the best position to prevent harm to workers’ spouses related to asbestos particles.   The Supreme Court agreed.

Anthony Olivo had worked as a steamfitter/welder for an independent contractor at various industrial and commercial sites from 1947 to 1984.   Each day when he returned home from work he would go to his basement and change out of his work clothes into clean clothes left for him there by his wife.   Mrs. Olivo laundered his work clothes each evening.

In 1989, Mr. Olivo was diagnosed with non-malignant asbestosis.   In 2000, Mrs. Olivo was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma.   She died in 2001.

Mr. Olivo filed a wrongful death suit against 32 defendants, including Exxon, claiming that the landowners failed to protect him and his wife from harm caused by asbestos by not providing a safe working environment or taking measures to limit exposure to asbestos.

All defendants settled with Mr. Olivo except Exxon.   Exxon claimed that it was not liable for harm to someone who had not been on their premises.   A lower court granted summary judgment in favor of Exxon.

On appeal, the lower court’s decision was reversed and the case was remanded back to the lower court for further proceedings.   The appellate court agreed with Mr. Olivo that Exxon was liable to he and his spouse as landowners because the harm was foreseeable by Exxon and because Exxon was in the best position to protect them.

Exxon had asked that the state’s Supreme Court weigh in on the case.   The high court’s decision is here .