Victory on Appeal for Georgia-Pacific: No Duty to Warn of Dangers of Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos Until 1972

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In Georgia Pacific LLC v. Farrar, No.  102 Sept. Term 2012, 2013 WL  3456573 (Md. July 8, 2013), Maryland’s highest court established that manufacturers of asbestos-containing products cannot be liable to household members for failing to warn of the dangers associated with exposure to asbestos before 1972, based upon two distinct grounds:  (1) the scientific knowledge of the potential hazards to household members was not known until 1972 at the earliest, and (2) a product manufacturer’s warning to those household members would have been impossible or ineffective.

After contracting mesothelioma, Plaintiff Dr. Jocelyn Farrar filed suit against more than thirty manufacturers of asbestos-containing products, including Georgia-Pacific LLC.  At the time of trial, only Georgia-Pacific remained. Dr. Farrar claimed she had been exposed to asbestos from shaking the dust off of her grandfather’s asbestos-laden work clothes each weekend.  Her grandfather, an insulator, was exposed to asbestos dust from various products, but did not work directly with Georgia-Pacific’s asbestos-containing joint compound.  Rather, he was allegedly exposed to the joint compound by being in the immediate vicinity of workers who applied and sanded the joint compound while installing drywall.  He brought his work clothes home each weekend, when Dr. Farrar, as a teenager, would wash them in the basement of his home where she spent most of her time.

Dr. Farrar’s potential exposure to asbestos from joint compound was limited to a six or seven month period in 1968-69.  Georgia-Pacific established that the dangers of exposure to household members were not widely known until later, when in 1972 OSHA adopted regulations dealing specifically with the problem of tracking asbestos dust on clothing into the home.

Nevertheless, the lower courts held that Georgia-Pacific was liable for approximately $5 million of Dr. Farrar’s $20+ million verdict. In the lowers courts’ views, Georgia-Pacific failed to warn Dr. Farrar of the potential dangers associated with its joint compound product because household members such as Dr. Farrar were in a “foreseeable zone of danger."

The Maryland Court of Appeals rejected this argument and held that Georgia-Pacific had no duty to warn household members prior to 1972 because they were not in the “foreseeable zone of danger.”  The court reasoned that, even if Georgia-Pacific should have foreseen in 1968 that individuals such as Dr. Farrar were in a zone of danger, there was no practical way that any warning given would or could have avoided that danger.  In other words, the court focused on the fact that there was no practical way—in an age before home computers and social media—that manufacturers and suppliers of products containing asbestos could have directly warned household members, who had no connection with the product, the manufacturer or supplier of the product, the worker’s employer, or the owner of the premises where the asbestos product was being used.  Ultimately, the court concluded that the record did not support a claim that, prior to 1972, Georgia-Pacific should or could have warned Dr. Farrar of the danger of exposure to the dust on her grandfather’s clothes.  The reversal is significant not only for Georgia-Pacific, but for other manufacturers facing secondhand exposure claims in Maryland.

Georgia-Pacific was represented at trial by Sedgwick LLP’s Maria Katina Karos, Craig Barnes, and Katherine Binns.  Ms. Karos was also significantly involved in the appellate briefing.

Topics:  Asbestos, Asbestos Litigation, Duty of Care, Duty to Warn, Hazardous Substances, Toxic Exposure

Published In: Civil Procedure Updates, Products Liability Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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