California Property Owner Prevails in Premises Liability Case Based on Second-Hand Exposure to Asbestos

laundryCalifornia law allows people to pursue premises liability claims if the landowner’s actions or inaction created an unreasonable risk of harm to offsite individuals. This potential for recovery from injuries does not extend to people harmed through secondary exposure to the clothes of a relative who wore asbestos-contaminated work clothes home. The California Court of Appeal concluded that allowing such second-hand asbestos exposure claims could lead to “limitless liability” for premises owners.

Frank Beckering worked as a machinist for Shell Oil Co. at its facilities in Dominguez and Wilmington in Southern California for nearly four decades, from 1954 to 1992. Beckering died 17 years after he retired. Four years later, his wife, Wanda Beckering, sued the employer. The wife launched a premises liability case, even though she never visited either of the Shell sites where her husband worked. According to the wife, Shell was still liable to her, since her act of laundering her husband’s work clothes for decades caused her to develop mesothelioma.

Shell asked the trial court to award it summary judgment on the premises liability claim, arguing that the law did not permit family members to bring premises liability actions for “secondary exposure to asbestos used during the course of the property owner’s business.” Shell claimed that California courts had already decided that, even though it was potentially foreseeable that a family member might have secondary contact with asbestos fibers, the law still imposed no duty on the part of the premises owner to protect others from second-hand exposure.

The trial court sided with Shell, and Beckering appealed. The appeals court also sided with Shell. While the courts decided back in 1999 that premises owners generally are potentially liable to victims of secondary exposure “if the landowner’s property is maintained in such a manner as to expose persons to an unreasonable risk of injury offsite,” that standard did not apply to Beckering’s case.

The Court of Appeal decided that Beckering’s claim was similar to a 2012 case, Campbell v. Ford Motor Co., where the court ruled against the relative of an independent contractor who laundered the clothes of two people (her father and brother) who were exposed to asbestos at Ford’s facility. The Campbell court ruled as it did in part because allowing those exposed secondarily to asbestos to sue would create a large group of victims with cases, including those who laundered the clothes with the exposed person, or even those who commuted with the exposed person, leading to potentially “limitless liability.” The court rejected Beckering’s argument that her case was different from the Campbell case because the exposed people at the Ford facility were independent contractors, whereas Beckering’s husband was an employee of Shell. The employment status of the exposed persons was not the issue that resolved the Campbell case, so that ruling still applied in Beckering’s case, the court concluded.

While the specific circumstances of Beckering’s case prevented her from obtaining a favorable judgment, the law does allow many people injured second-hand to recover from premises owners. For answers to your premises liability issues and questions, contact the Oakland premises liability attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our injury attorneys can help you determine if you have a case and how best to proceed. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule a confidential initial consultation today.

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Law Does Not Require ‘Big Box’ Store to Keep Defibrillator on Hand in Case of Cardiac Emergencies, Supreme Court Rules, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, July 15, 2014