Summary Judgment Granted to Asbestos Paper Products Manufacturer in Take-Home Exposure Case Based on No Duty to Warn Superior Court of Delaware, February 2, 2017
Plaintiff Dorothy Ramsey, through her estate, alleged that the defendant Georgia Southern University Advanced Development Center (Herty) negligently failed to warn her of the risks of take-home exposure to Herty’s asbestos paper products used at her husband’s work from 1976-80. She alleged this exposure caused her to develop lung cancer. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing it did not owe Plaintiff a duty of care. The central issue in this case was whether Price v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. and Riedel v. ICI Americas Inc. applied to the facts of this case, as both dealt with claims of negligence asserted against the employer of the plaintiff’s spouse. The court found that both cases applied. Consistent with both, the court found that the plaintiff alleged claims of nonfeasance; as such, a special relationship was required between her and the defendant, which was not shown. Summary judgment was granted.
The plaintiff’s husband worked for Haveg, which used both Herty’s and other manufacturer’s asbestos paper in making pipe and pipe fittings. The court examined centrally whether Herty owed the plaintiff a duty of care. Herty argued the plaintiff’s allegations were properly characterized as alleged failures to act, or nonfeasance. As such, Herty only owed a duty of care to the plaintiff if she stood in a special relationship with Herty, which she did not. The plaintiff argued this case was distinguishable and should be analyzed under general principles of tort law; Herty’s affirmative act of making and releasing an asbestos product into the stream of commerce created a duty of care to all foreseeable plaintiffs.
The issue here was a novel one — did Price and Riedel limit take-home exposure cases to ones in which the plaintiff-spouse alleged the employer failed to take adequate steps to protect the plaintiff, or were they equally applicable to where a manufacturer supplied an asbestos product that posed a risk of household exposure to the employee’s spouse? The court outlined both parties’ approaches to this issue and found no duty of care.
Although courts addressing the duty of care in this context have taken divergent positions on the issue of whether an employer owes a duty to warn the employee’s spouse of the risks of take-home asbestos exposure, these courts implemented various approaches from Price and Riedel. However, Delaware law under Price was clear — employers owed no duty of care for failing to take steps to protect employees’ spouses from dangerous conditions on its property and transported home unless plaintiffs identified a special relationship between the parties. Here: “The Court finds that the analytical framework implemented in Price and Riedel is equally applicable to the facts of the present case. Those cases involved analogous claims of take-home asbestos exposure asserted by a spouse against her husband’s employer. The key difference in this case—that Herty is a manufacturer and not Plaintiff’s husband’s employer—undermines, rather than bolsters, Plaintiff’s contention that Price and Riedel are distinguishable. This is clear when Plaintiff’s argument is outlined to its logical conclusion.” Therefore, the plaintiff cannot state a valid negligence claim against her husband’s employer, Haveg, without first identifying either (1) the employer’s misfeasance, or (2) the employer’s nonfeasance and special relationship. The manufacturer which supplied asbestos products to the employer was a distant third party. “Distilled to their essence, Plaintiff’s allegations epitomize nonfeasance.”