Grant of Summary Judgment to Employer Defendants Reversed on Appeal

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Jurisdiction: Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Richard and Pamela Shellenberger filed a lawsuit to recover damages from several defendants, including Mr. Shellenberger’s employers — Kreider Dairy Farms Inc. and Noah W. Kreider & Sons LLP (Appellees) — as a result of his exposure to asbestos and subsequent mesothelioma diagnosis, from which he ultimately died. Specifically, they alleged that Mr. Shellenberger was exposed to asbestos through maintenance work he performed on the boiler at Kreider Farms’ dairy processing plant from 1972 through September 1980.    

The appellees filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming there was no evidence they breached a duty to Mr. Shellenberger as they lacked knowledge of the dangers of asbestos during his employment. The trial court granted the appellees’ summary-judgment motion. Ms. Shellenberger (appellant) filed a motion for reconsideration, which the trial court denied. The appellant appealed.    

In reviewing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, the Superior Court first defined the duty of care owed by the appellees to their employees, including Mr. Shellenberger, as “a duty to protect them not only from known dangers, but also from those which might be discovered with reasonable care.” In addition, the appellees “had a duty to their employees to create and maintain a safe work environment, conforming to the conduct of an ordinary, prudent person who has special knowledge as a person experienced in the business. . . . This includes taking steps to protect their employees from conditions likely to cause them harm.”  Lastly, the appellees “were required to have knowledge of generally known scientific discoveries, to take care to ascertain facts which would indicate danger to their employees, and to take appropriate action if discovered.” The Superior Court found that the trial court erred not in its adoption of the appropriate standard of care, but rather in its application of the standard. That is, the trial court merely focused on whether the appellees had actual knowledge of the hazards of asbestos and failed to determine whether there was evidence showing that they should have known of the hazards.    The Superior Court agreed with the trial court insofar as the appellees lacked actual knowledge but determined that there was sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that Appellees should have known of the hazards associated with asbestos. Namely, the appellant presented expert reports, medical journals, and publications establishing that the dangers of asbestos were “generally known” in the 1960s. Moreover, the appellant noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its workplace asbestos exposure standards in June 1972 – the same month that Kreider Farms’ dairy processing plant began its operations. Because the appellant presented sufficient evidence to establish a genuine issue of material fact, that appellees breached a duty to Mr. Shellenberger by failing to protect him from exposure to asbestos, the Superior Court found that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment in favor of the appellees.

Read the full decision here.