The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that employers owe a duty of care to the family members of employees who develop mesothelioma because the asbestos fibers traveled to their homes on the workers’ clothes, bodies, and vehicles.
Historically, businesses have usually only been required to compensate their employees if they contracted mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure at the work site. However, in a 4-3 ruling, the Virginia Supreme Court stated that the employers owe a duty of care because they knew or should have known that others could handle their employees’ asbestos-covered clothing.
The Case in Virginia
In the case in question, Quisenberry v. Huntington Ingalls Inc., Wanda Quisenberry’s son claimed that he and his family deserved to be compensated by Huntington Ingalls because the company knew or should have known the dangers that asbestos would pose to the family members of their employees, in this case, Wanda.
As a child, Wanda would wash her father’s clothes after he came home from working at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock (Huntington Ingalls now owns the company).
However, because the company didn’t warn her father not to wear his clothes home, provide him with an onsite laundry facility, or educate him about various safeguards that would have prevented transporting the asbestos, the clothes that Wanda washed were covered in the fibers which she breathed in.
As a result of breathing in the asbestos fibers while she was washing her father’s clothes when she was a child, Wanda contracted mesothelioma in 2013 and passed away 3 years later.
Owing a “Duty of Care”
The company had argued that because they were not directly associated with Wanda, they do not legally owe her a duty of care. However, the majority of the judges disagreed with that argument because someone’s responsibility doesn’t rely on having a particular relationship with another, but instead comes from the belief that people should not injure someone because preventing the injury would be inconvenient.
To better explain their position, the judges used an analogy of a cow wandering off of its owner’s property. A farmer must ensure his cow doesn’t walk off his field and lie down on the roads. The reason for this duty isn’t because the farmer might know the driver of the vehicle who encounters his cow, but because the farmer knows the danger his cow can present to the motorist.
Similarly, Huntington Ingalls owed a duty of care to Wanda not because they knew her personally or because she worked for them, but because they knew the dangers that coming into contact with the asbestos on her father’s clothing could cause her.
Secondary Asbestos Exposure Cases
Unfortunately, Wanda is not alone in being exposed to asbestos in her home because someone else in her family worked with it. There have been many secondary exposure cases recently. However, because mesothelioma can take upwards of 50 years to develop after exposure to asbestos, it’s impossible to say how many more instances of mesothelioma caused by second-hand exposure there will be.
Rulings like the one Wanda’s family received pave the way for other families to receive compensation from companies. While the settlement cannot bring back a loved one, the money can help the family cope with unexpected expenses associated with a loss of income or the medical expenses. That is why it’s so important to see rulings like the one Wanda’s estate received or the one that the family of Adrienne Sweeney received in the U.K.
Like Wanda, Adrienne did not work directly with asbestos. Instead, her exposure came when she hugged her husband after he returned home for work, and when she washed his asbestos-covered clothes. After she passed away from mesothelioma, her family successfully argued that her husband’s employer, Babcock International Ltd., owed a duty of care to her family.