PLF urges reasonable limits on tort duties

February 28, 2013 | By DEBORAH LA FETRA

Asbestos has amazing fire-retardent and insulating properties and was used in thousands of products for decades.  As everyone now knows, asbestos also releases microscopic fibers into the air that, when inhaled, can cause serious diseases.  For more than 40 years, people suffering from asbestos-caused illnesses have sued.  Then people who weren’t suffering any illness but thought they might in later years sued.  Then family members who did the laundry of workers who were exposed to asbestos sued; these are called “take-home” or “bystander” cases.  And now, in Georgia-Pacific LLC v. Farrar, the family member of a worker whose job was near a worker who worked with asbestos is suing.  The Maryland Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) will decide whether this “bystander of a bystander” has a viable claim that Georgia-Pacific had a “duty to warn” the twice-removed family member.

PLF’s amicus brief, filed today, argues that tort law should limit the duty to warn to those people who actually used Georgia-Pacific products and could benefit from the warning.  In this case, neither the plaintiff nor the alleged conveyer of asbestos fibers into the plaintiff’s presence used Georgia-Pacific products.  A duty to warn in these circumstances essentially covers the general public, as there is no limiting factor.

The implications are staggering.  If the court permits this case to proceed, we should expect to see lawsuits against landlords and private homeowners, charging them with liability for secondhand exposures that originate from their premises.  In an apartment building, tenants frequently share a common laundry room.  Does an asbestos manufacturer have a duty to warn the co-tenants of a workers’ apartment house of the dangers of asbestos that might result in residue in the washing machine or dryer?  Could apartment owners be the next target for asbestos litigation, if they fail to post warnings related to their tenants’ occupational hazards that they might bring home to common areas of the residence?  How would this affect homeowners’ or apartment owners’ insurance policies?  And how on earth is a manufacturer of asbestos-containing products, used decades ago, supposed to convey reasonable warnings to bystanders of bystanders in a timely manner?  PLF hopes the Maryland court will consider these public policy concerns and decline to expand the duty to warn into uncharted territory.