It is commonly acknowledged that employers have a duty to provide a safe, healthy environment to their employees. If an employer fails to provide a safe environment, perhaps resulting in a work injury, then that employer may be held liable for the employee’s injuries. However, a new Illinois Supreme Court decision extends an employer’s duty beyond just to its employee, but to the employee’s family as well.
The Illinois case of Cynthia Simpkins v. CSX Transportation,110662 (March 22, 2012), was filed after the wife of a CSX Transportation employee developed mesothelioma; the wife alleged that her mesothelioma was caused by exposure to asbestos on her husband’s work clothes. The trial court dismissed the case on the basis that CSX owed no responsibility to its employee’s wife because there was no direct relationship between her and CSX. However, both the Illinois Appellate Court and the Illinois Supreme Court reversed that ruling, although for different reasons.
The Illinois Appellate Court decision held that not only does an employer have a responsibility to its employee’s family members, but that the plaintiff had shown sufficient evidence to support its claims against CSX. Specifically, the court found that “it takes little imagination to presume that when an employee who is exposed to asbestos brings home his work clothes, members of his family are likely to be exposed as well.” Therefore, the appellate court found that Simpkins had provided evidence to suggest that CSX was negligent and did not fulfill its duty to her. And while the Illinois Supreme Court agreed that in theory an employer does have a duty to its employees’ family members, it did not agree that Simpkins had provided enough evidence to prove that CSX did in fact have a duty towards her.
After examining the case facts, the Illinois Supreme Court found that Simpkins had not proven that CSX owed her a duty of care. However, it held that Simpkins deserved another chance to amend her complaint in an attempt to prove her claim that CSX had a duty towards her. In her original complaint, Simpkins alleged that she was exposed to asbestos through her husband’s work clothes and that the asbestos exposure was the cause of her mesothelioma cancer. Simpkins’s husband had worked for CSX in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Generally, an employer has a duty to its employees if it could have foreseen a risk of harm to its employee and failed to take the necessary steps to prevent that harm. However, the issue in Simpkins was not whether CSX owed a duty to its employee, but rather whether it owed a duty to its employee’s wife. The appellate court found that CSX did owe a duty to Simpkins and that she had a viable claim for a work-related injury.
The defendant appealed the appellate court’s decision, arguing that a direct relationship must exist between the company and the injured party in order for there to be a duty of care. However, the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed, instead holding that “an independent ‘direct relationship’ between parties may help to establish the foreseeability of the injury to the plaintiff that is not an additional requirement to establishing a duty in this context.”
Therefore, the supreme court held that a company like CSX could have a duty towards its employee’s family members; however, Simpkins argument as it currently stands has failed to sufficiently establish that duty. Simpkins failed to establish that CSX should have foreseen the danger to Simpkins of asbestos on her husband’s clothing. Yet Simpkins should be given the chance to amend her complaint in response to the defendant’s arguments against its duty. The validity of her claim will therefore depend on her ability to address those arguments.
The Illinois Supreme Court decision was not unanimous; rather, the justices were split 4 to 2, with one justice not taking part. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Freeman, whose main issue was regarding the foreseeability requirement. Justice Freeman points out that the dangers of asbestos weren’t even published until after 1965; therefore “foreseeability could not be established as a matter of law.” And if foreseeability could not be established, then no relationship could have existed between CSX and Simpkins. However, the majority opinion stands and Simpkins will be remanded to the trial court for further consideration.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois work injury cases for individuals and families for more than 36 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Naperville, New Lenox, Orland Park, Westmont, Oak Lawn, Riverdale, Villa Park, Glendale Heights, and Libertyville.
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