A recent Illinois Appellate Court case has clarified the duty an employer owes to not only its employees, but also to the employee’s family. Simpkins v. CSX Corp, et al., No. 5-07-0346, involves a claim brought by the ex-wife of a former railroad worker regarding asbestos exposure she experienced as a result of her ex-husband’s employment.
The plaintiff’s ex-husband had worked at B&O Railroad as a steelworker, welder, railroad firefighter and laborer from 1951 to 1965. During the majority of his employment he was exposed to asbestos in his work environment. The plaintiff’s lawsuit alleged that she had contracted mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos on her husband’s work clothes and asserted that the railroad had negligently failed to take proper precautions to protect its employees’ families from “take-home” asbestos.
The railroad filed a motion to dismiss that stated that there no Illinois case set out that an employer owed a duty to its employee’s family members who had been exposed to asbestos. Therefore, any ruling on the employer’s duty would create a new cause of action. The railroad then went on to state that this was not an issue for the trial court, but should be decided by either the legislature or an appellate court. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case, leaving the burden on the plaintiff to appeal if she felt there was reason to create a new cause of action.
The plaintiff responded by appealing the dismissal to the Illinois Appellate Court and argued that general principles of duty laid out under Illinois law would support a court finding that an employer has the duty to protect family members from take-home asbestos.
In its decision the appellate court noted that it was “perplexed” by the defendant’s argument that a trial court was unable to decide a new cause of action and by the trial judge’s agreement with that argument. The appellate court noted that under common law all courts have the authority to decide on any issues before them and that there “is no prerequisite that an appellate court decide cases of first impression”.
The court then considered the issue before them of whether Illinois law holds an employer responsible protecting its employee’s family members in take-home asbestos cases. The appellate court agreed with the plaintiff’s arguments and held that under Illinois law there is a provision stating that an employer’s duty depends on the relationship between the parties and whether the law imposes an obligation upon a defendant to act in a reasonable manner for the plaintiff’s benefit.
Therefore, following this theory of duty, the issue is not whether the employer foresaw a risk to its employee’s family members, but whether it should have foreseen the risk if it took a reasonable level of care. In Simpkins, the court felt 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. Thus, the general character of the harm to be prevented was reasonably foreseeable.” In addition, the court held that the nature of asbestos and its potentially severe consequences was enough to establish a duty on the employer.
The court held it was not unduly burdensome to expect the railroad to take measures to protect employees and their family members from take-home asbestos considering the inherent risks from exposure. The Illinois appellate court reversed the trial court’s dismissal and remanded the case for trial where the plaintiff would have the burden of proving the railroad’s breach of duty and relate it to the plaintiff’s resulting injury. The appellate court’s ruling on duty is not equivalent to a ruling on liability or proximate cause.
CSX appealed the Illinois Appellate Court decision to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held that while Simpkins had failed to prove a duty existed between CSX and herself, she should be allowed the option to amend her complaint in order to establish that duty. Simpkins has been remanded to the trial court for further handling. For more details regarding the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision, see the blog post entitled “Illinois Supreme Court Holds That No Relationship Needed Between Asbestos Exposed Person and Company – Simpkins v. CSX.”
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