Before asbestos became widely and publicly known as a hazardous, cancer-causing substance, hundreds of thousands of people around the world faced long-term asbestos exposure and developed terminal illnesses as a result. Asbestos litigation offers an opportunity for victims of that exposure to recover from companies that frequently knew—or should have known—the risks that their employees were exposed to on a daily basis.
But it wasn’t just the employees who were exposed. When workers went home, they carried asbestos dust with them on their clothes and on their bodies. As a result, friends and family members were also exposed and we now see a special class of asbestos cases in the courts from these individuals. These are known as “take-home asbestos cases” and brought by family members injured because asbestos was brought into their homes.
In March, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a decision on a case (Simpkins v. CSX Transportation) that is allowing a take-home asbestos claim to move forward for trial. The suit alleges that Mrs. Simpkins contracted mesothelioma cancer due to exposure to asbestos brought home on her husband’s body and clothing. As a result, she filed several claims—including a a negligence claim—against CSX Transportation, the company who employed her husband between 1958 and 1964. Mrs Simpkins died, and the suit was resumed by her daughter.
CSX argued that the case should be dismissed because Mrs. Simpkins herself never worked for CSX and never even set foot on the company’s premises, that it had no duty to protect her from asbestos exposure.
Proving that a defendant had a “duty of care” is an essential element that a plaintiff in any negligence case has to prove. The plaintiff must show that the defendant had a duty to protect the plaintiff from whatever harm she suffered. The challenge of take-home asbestos cases is trying to establish how wide that duty of care extends. And in the case the Supreme Court decided, the question remains somewhat open. CSX argued that it simply did not owe a duty of care. The Court sided with the daughter and said CSX might have a duty of care, if facts are proven to back up the claim.
Now the case goes back down to the trial court where the daughter has another chance to allege that while Mrs. Simpkins' husband worked at the company from 1958-1964, the company should have foreseen that she was at risk of asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. It’s definitely a win for take-home asbestos plaintiffs because the Court clearly left the door open for these cases to proceed. But, it doesn’t come without its challenges of trying to prove what companies knew or should have known about asbestos nearly half a century ago.