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Can Companies Be Held Responsible When Their Employees’ Family Members Become Ill as a Result of an Employee’s Asbestos Exposure?

Prior to the 1980s, asbestos was a common building material in Illinois and throughout the United States. As the public learned of the serious health risks associated with asbestos exposure, however, safe alternatives took its place. Unfortunately, a substantial number of workers were routinely exposed to asbestos prior to this shift. As a result, many eventually developed illnesses such as mesothelioma. In addition, their family members sometimes developed these same illnesses because they were exposed to asbestos fibers that clung to the workers’ clothes and bodies. In the case of Simpkins v. CSX Transportation, the Illinois Supreme Court considers whether a company can be held responsible for asbestos-related illnesses incurred by third parties with whom they have no direct relationship.

The Facts

Mr. Simpkins was employed by CSX Transportation from 1958 to 1964. During this time, he was routinely exposed to both raw asbestos and asbestos-containing materials that were present in the workplace. Decades later, his wife developed mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer, which she believed was caused by exposure to asbestos fibers on her husband’s clothes and body.

Ms. Simpkins died from this illness after filing a lawsuit against CSX Transportation, among others. The lawsuit, which was filed in January 2007, alleged that CSX had acted negligently (carelessly). Specifically, Ms. Simpkins claimed that her husband’s employer knew (or should have known) its materials contained a harmful substance, asbestos. Furthermore, she said CSX used its materials in such a way that the asbestos fibers escaped, posing a considerable health risk to employees’ family members since it was foreseeable that they would have contact with the escaped fibers.

Negligence & the Duty to Protect Against Illness or Injury

To prove negligence in Illinois, injured parties must demonstrate that the defendant has a duty to protect them from injury. The injured party must then show the defendant failed to uphold this duty, causing the injury. If injured parties are unable to prove the defendant has a duty to protect, they cannot win a lawsuit.

Whether defendants have a duty to protect the injured party depends on four factors: the reasonable foreseeability of the injury, the likelihood of the injury, the extent to which preventing the injury is burdensome, and the consequences of imposing that burden.

Illinois courts recognize that all people and businesses have a duty of ordinary care to protect against injuries or illnesses that may result from their actions. In other words, if an injury or illness is foreseeable as a possible result of a person or company’s conduct, the person or company has a duty of ordinary care to protect against it. This duty does not apply only to those with whom the individual or business has a direct relationship; it may also extend to third parties.

The Decision

In response to Ms. Simpkins’s lawsuit, CSX filed a motion to dismiss. The company claimed employers have no duty to protect third parties who come into contact “with its employees’ asbestos-tainted work clothing at locations away from the workplace.” CSX cited similar cases as support for its position. In response, Ms. Simpkins submitted extensive documentation to bolster her argument. However, the trial court dismissed the case, noting it “sounded like a great argument for the Supreme Court.”

Ms. Simpkins appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, which overturned the trial court’s dismissal. The appellate court stated that the risk of harm for a CSX employee’s family was foreseeable, therefore the company had a duty of reasonable care towards Ms. Simpkins.

CSX then appealed this decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, claiming it could not be held liable for Ms. Simpkins’s illness because it had no direct relationship to her. More specifically, Ms. Simpkins was never employed by CSX, nor did she ever visit its premises. Furthermore, CSX claimed she was not a vicarious beneficiary of the company’s duty to protect its employees. Therefore, CSX claimed it had no duty to protect her from an illness caused by exposure to its asbestos fibers.

Ms. Simpkins disagreed, saying CSX created the risk of harm and, in cases where a company creates such a risk, it has a duty to protect third parties.

Because Ms. Simpkins alleged that CSX actively created the risk and thus owed her a duty of reasonable care, the Supreme Court turned to the four factors noted above to test her claim: the reasonable foreseeability of her illness, the likelihood of her illness, the extent to which preventing her illness would have been burdensome, and the consequences of imposing that burden.

The Court’s discussion centered on foreseeability—specifically whether Ms. Simpkins’s illness was “reasonably foreseeable” at the time when her husband was employed by CSX. The Court said that whether her illness was reasonably foreseeable depended on the asbestos-related information available at the time of Ms. Simpkins’s exposure. In other words, whether CSX had a duty of reasonable care to prevent her illness depended on the specific information the company could/should be held accountable for knowing in 1958-1964.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, CSX alleged that Ms. Simpkins did not provide specific facts to demonstrate that her illness was foreseeable because CSX knew or should have known about the dangers of asbestos during the time of her husband’s employment. This was a different argument than the one it had presented in the lower courts. (There, CSX argued it had no duty to protect third party non-employees from asbestos exposure off-premises.) Ms. Simpkins responded by saying that she could have re-pleaded in greater detail had this argument arisen earlier.

The Supreme Court agreed with both CSX and Ms. Simpkins, noting that In Illinois, parties have to allege specific facts in their claims (not just broad legal conclusions). Therefore, CSX was correct in saying that Ms. Simpkins’s argument was inadequate. At the same time, Ms. Simpkins was not given an opportunity to address this issue and provide facts to support her position. The Court could not conclude whether CSX had a duty of reasonable care to Ms. Simpkins because foreseeability is crucial to determining the existence of a duty, and foreseeability could not be established without specific information about CSX’s knowledge of the potential harms of asbestos. The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court’s decision to overturn the trial court’s dismissal. However, the rationale differed. Whereas the appellate court believed Ms. Simpkins’s illness was foreseeable and therefore CSX owed her a duty, the Supreme Court felt the facts were insufficient to determine duty. Therefore, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the circuit court so Ms. Simpkins could file an amended complaint that included factual evidence to support her assertions.

Conclusion

Illinois law does not require there to be a direct relationship between a defendant and an injured party in order for the defendant to be held liable for the harm it causes. Furthermore, in cases where injuries are reasonably foreseeable, defendants have a duty of care to protect third parties. However, the injured party can only establish foreseeability by pleading sufficient facts in the complaint.

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