Maryland Appellate Court Upholds Motion for Judgment on Basis that Manufacturer Had no Duty to Warn of Take-Home Exposure

MARYLAND – Concetta Schatz’s (Mrs. Schatz) children (Appellants) commenced a lawsuit against John Crane, Inc. (JCI), alleging that Mrs. Schatz’s husband handled asbestos-containing JCI products while at work and wore his asbestos-covered clothing home for Mrs. Schatz to launder, thereby exposing her to asbestos, resulting in her mesothelioma diagnosis and eventual death.

At the close of Appellants’ case-in-chief, JCI moved for judgment on the basis that Appellants failed to prove JCI owed a legal duty to warn Mrs. Schatz.  The lower Circuit Court granted JCI’s motion and Appellant appealed, arguing that: (i) the Circuit Court erred by finding household members constitute an “indeterminate class,”; and (ii) a defendant’s duty to warn extended to household members when OSHA promulgated safety regulations dealing specifically with the circumstance in which an individual tracked asbestos dust on his or her clothing into the home.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals explained that, in a household member’s action against an asbestos manufacturer for a failure to warn, the existence of a duty is determined by: 1) what the manufacturer knew or reasonably should have known about the dangers posed to household members when the exposures occurred (e.g., “foreseeability of harm”); and 2) weighing the foreseeability of harm against other policy-based factors, including the relationship between the parties and the feasibility of providing warnings.

The Court of Special Appeals emphasized that the fact that defendants knew, through a 1972 OSHA publication, that household members exposed through another’s asbestos-covered clothing were foreseeably within the “zone of danger,” although important, was not the only criterion in determining a duty to warn.  The court went on to explain that the feasibility of a defendant providing a warning is considered with regard to the household member as opposed to an intermediary.  Specifically, courts rejected the notion that the duty to warn extended to a spouse simply because a defendant was obligated to warn the intermediary spouse.

With regard to Appellants’ contentions, the Court of Special Appeals found no relationship between JCI, the manufacturer, and Mrs. Schatz, the household member.  The Court also found that, assuming it would have been legally sufficient for JCI to warn Mrs. Schatz’s intermediary husband, evidence failed to show what Mr. Schatz could have done to limit exposure to Mrs. Schatz.  In other words, there was no showing that a warning would have been effective and caused Mr. Schatz to not wear his dusty clothing home.

Finally, the court agreed with Appellant that household members were not, contrary to the Circuit Court’s finding, an “indeterminate class.”  Being qualified as an identifiable class of individuals did not necessarily extend a duty to warn to household members defined as such.

Consequently, the Court of Special Appeals concluded that the Circuit Court did not err in granting JCI’s motion for judgment.

Read the full case decision here.