Courtroom, Gavel And Law Books

Grant of Summary Judgment to Aluminum Plant Owner Reversed

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Jurisdiction: Court of Appeals of Iowa

We previously reported on this matter involving the decedent, Charles Beverage, who was employed as an independent contractor at an aluminum plant between the 1950s and the mid-1970s. Following his death in October 2015, the decedent’s estate filed a products liability suit against several defendants, including Alcoa Inc., the aluminum plant’s owner, and Iowa-Illinois Taylor Insulation Inc., an installer of insulation, alleging that the decedent was exposed to asbestos during his employment and subsequently contracted mesothelioma. 

At that time, the district court granted motions for summary judgment filed by Alcoa and Iowa-Illinois based on its interpretation of an asbestos-liability-limitation statute. The Court of Appeals of Iowa affirmed, but the decision was later vacated by the Iowa Supreme Court, which held that the statute did not apply to claims other than products liability. On remand, the defendants again moved for summary judgment. Alcoa claimed that it did not owe a duty to the decedent due to his status as an independent contractor. The district court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motions based on a lack of evidence that Alcoa “maintained a necessary degree of control” over the decedent’s work. The plaintiffs appealed the district court’s denial of their motion to reconsider, enlarge, or amend. 

On appeal, the plaintiffs challenge the district court’s grant of summary judgment on their premises-liability action, which requires them to establish the following four elements: “the existence of a duty to conform to a standard of conduct to protect others, a failure to conform to that standard, proximate cause, and damages.” The plaintiffs’ appeal focuses solely on Alcoa’s duty as a land possessor. That is, Alcoa owed the decedent a duty as a land possessor because Alcoa’s “conduct created the risk of asbestos exposure by using asbestos-containing insulation, equipment, and products.” In addition, Alcoa “created an artificial condition of airborne asbestos fibers when the company had its employees remove insulation.”

A land possessor owes a duty of reasonable care to entrants as follows: (1) through “conduct of the land possessor that crates risks to entrants on the land” and (2) through “artificial conditions on the land that pose risks to entrants on the land.”  

The district court applied a “modified duty analysis” from the Second Restatement of Torts for employers of independent contractors: 

One who employs an independent contractor to do work which the employer should recognize as likely to create, during its progress, a peculiar unreasonable risk of physical harm to others unless special precautions are taken, is subject to liability for physical harm caused to them by the absence of such precautions if the employer:

(a) fails to provide in the contract that the contractor shall take such precautions, or

(b) fails to exercise reasonable care to provide in some other manner for the taking of such precautions.

The district court relied on Van Fossen v. MidAmerican EnergyCo., in which an independent contractor sued his employer and the worksite’s land possessor for the death of his wife from mesothelioma, allegedly resulting from her exposure to asbestos while laundering his work clothes.

The Iowa Supreme Court held that the employer owed “no general duty of reasonable care to a member of the household of an employee of the independent contractor.” Here, the district court appears to have expanded Van Fossen such that the duty Alcoa owed under a land possessor-entrant relationship was the same owed under their employer-independent contractor relationship. However, Van Fossen did not address premises liability or the duty owed by a land possessor to an entrant.

Accordingly, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Alcoa and instructed the district court to apply the traditional duty of care owed by land possessors. 

Read the full decision here.