Summary Judgment Granted to Employer Under Washington Industrial Insurance Act

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U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, March 16, 2020

WASHINGTON – On March 16, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington granted summary judgment to defendant, Alcoa, holding that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the Washington Industrial Insurance Act (WIIA). The plaintiff, Clinton Casey, worked as a utility laborer and pot tender for Alcoa Wenatchee Works, an aluminum manufacturing facility, from 1973 to 2005. He alleged that during this time he was exposed to asbestos from other workers who handled asbestos insulation in his vicinity. Casey was diagnosed with asbestosis in 2017, and died in 2020. He filed suit alleging that Alcoa intentionally injured him by exposing him to asbestos at the facility. Citing to internal Alcoa documents, Casey argued that Alcoa was aware that asbestos dust levels in its facilities exceeded threshold limits, and that its efforts to protect its workers were insufficient. Alcoa moved for summary judgment, arguing that Casey’s claims were barred by the WIIA, and did not fall under the deliberate injury exception to same, because Casey failed to show that Alcoa intended to cause his injuries by showing that Alcoa had actual knowledge that Casey was certain to develop asbestosis, and willfully disregarded such knowledge.

By way of background, the WIIA established a compensation system for workplace-related injuries in Washington, and therefore provides immunity to employers from civil suits by workers. The act contains an exception, however, for employers who deliberately injure their employees. The Washington Supreme Court, in analyzing this exception, has previously held that in order for an employer’s actions to fall under the exception, the employer must have had actual knowledge that an injury was certain to occur and willfully disregarded that knowledge. Birklid v. Boeing Co., 904 P.2d 278 (1995). The Birklid standard was applied in the asbestos context in 2014, in the matter of Walston v. Boeing Co. In Walston, the plaintiffs contended that the deliberate injury exception applied because the defendant knew that someone, though not necessarily the plaintiff, was certain to be injured by exposure to asbestos. 294 P.3d 759 (2013). The Walston court rejected that argument, holding that an act that has substantial certainty of producing injury is insufficient to meet the standard. Id.

Therefore, under Birklid and its progeny, the district court held that Alcoa’s motion for summary judgment must be granted, as Casey did not meet his burden of showing that Alcoa had actual knowledge that his injury was certain to occur. Casey’s proofs merely showed that Alcoa was aware of the potential risks of asbestos exposure, but did not show that Alcoa knew of immediate and visible injury, or that Casey was certain to suffer such injury. As such, Casey’s claims against Alcoa were barred under the WIIA, and summary judgment to Alcoa was granted.