[author: Corinne Cerrati]
The California Court of Appeal held in Campbell v. Ford Motor Company, 2012 WL 1820919, that a premises owner owes no duty to warn family members of employees of contractors of the hazards of secondary asbestos exposure.
In Campbell, plaintiff Eileen Honer filed a premises liability suit against Ford Motor Company, alleging that her mesothelioma diagnosis was caused by exposure to asbestos from washing the clothes of her father and brother in their home during the 1940s. Her father and brother were career union asbestos insulators. Between 1947 and 1948, they were employed by Charles S. Wood & Co., at the Ford Plant in Metuchen, N.J. The case proceeded to trial, and the jury found Ford only 5 percent liable for Honer’s damages. Ford appealed the judgment, and asserted that it did not owe a duty to Honer because Ford, as a premises owner, was not responsible for acts or omissions of independent contractors working on Ford’s premises.
In finding that Ford did not owe a duty to the plaintiff, the court centered its analysis on the factors that establish a duty of care as defined in Rowland v. Christian, 69 Cal 2d. 108 (1968), and later clarified in Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Store, 51 Cal.4th 764 (2011). Under Rowland, foreseeability and the burden on the defendant are central to the analysis of finding the existence of a duty. The court held that even if it was foreseeable to Ford that employees could be exposed to asbestos dust as a result of the work performed on its premises, the “closeness of the connection” between Ford’s conduct and the decedent's injury was far too attenuated to establish a duty. The court analyzed a number of public policy considerations and found that the burden on landowners is far outweighed by creating an avenue of recovery for plaintiffs. Imposing a duty on landowners would create limitless liability because the class of potential plaintiffs is so large. The court noted that the class of plaintiffs could include “fellow commuters, those performing laundry services and more.”
The court broadly concluded that, because an employer has no duty to protect family members of employees from secondary exposure to asbestos used during the course of the employer‘s business, Ford owed no duty to Honer, and the judgment was reversed.