For some time now, California businesses that expose employees to hazardous chemicals and materials – such as asbestos – have known that they can be liable to those employees for significant workers’ compensation benefits in the event the employee contracts an occupational disease, such as mesothelioma. The employer’s duty to members of the employee’s family, who may suffer from “take-home exposure,” has been less clear.

Employees Can Be “Vectors” Carrying Harmful Materials

In a decision released December 1, 2016, the Supreme Court of California offered some clarity to the issue, holding that employers (as well as premises owners in some instances) have a duty that extends to “members of a worker’s household” to exercise ordinary care to prevent take-home asbestos exposures. The Court indicated that where it is reasonably foreseeable that workers, their clothing or personal effects will act as “vectors carrying asbestos from the premises to household members,” employers have a duty to take reasonable care to prevent this means of transmission.

The high court’s decision struck down two earlier California Courts of Appeal cases that held employers and premises owners owe no duty of care to household members for take-home exposure to asbestos and other toxic chemicals. The Supreme Court said an employee’s return home from work was an unusual occurrence. The Court added that preventing injuries to members of the workers’ household due to asbestos exposure imposed no greater burden on the employer than preventing exposure and injury to the workers themselves.

No Duty, However, Owed Beyond the Employee’s Household

The Court indicated, however, that the duty extends only to members of the worker’s actual household; not to others who claim they also were exposed to the hazardous materials by contact with the employee, or his (or her) clothing or personal effects.

Supreme Court Struck a Balance

While not altogether pleased with the Court’s decision, some employer groups do acknowledge that the Court may have struck an appropriate balance. An employer’s potential tort liability should not be endless and the Court agreed on that point, holding that the employer’s duty to protect persons did not extend, for example, to the worker’s other relatives, friends, acquaintances, service providers, babysitters, neighbors, carpool partners, fellow commuters on public transportation, and laundry workers. Indeed, the Court was attempting to strike a workable balance. It is one thing to allow compensation for reasonably foreseeable injuries of family members; it is an altogether different matter to burden the courts and the defendants with the costs associated with litigation of disproportionately meritless claims.

Premises Owners Have Duty to Contractors and Their Families

Another important part of the decision affects premises owners. Whether the owner hires out work to an independent contractor or has it performed by an employee, the owner has a duty to provide reasonable protection from exposure to hazardous materials, both to the worker and to his or her family. Premises owners may need to examine their practices in this regard.

California Businesses Have Far-Reaching Obligations

California businesses have far-reaching obligations. Some extend even to members of an employee’s household or to the household of contract workers. If it’s been some time since your business reviewed its practices, it might be time to consult with a firm that can provide broad legal and business advice. For years now, CKB VIENNA LLP has represented businesses in all types of legal issues, from litigation to business structure, from best practices to personnel matters. Our team understands the complexity of the issues and stands ready to represent you aggressively. We have offices in Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles. Contact us by telephone – 909.980.1040 – or complete our online form.