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Manufacturer of Asbestos Products Had No Duty to Warn Granddaughter of Danger from Asbestos Dust Carried Into Home on Grandfather’s Clothes
Georgia Pacific, LLC, f/k/a Georgia-Pacific Corporation v. Farrar
In this case, Maryland’s Court of Appeals was asked to decide the issue of whether the manufacturer of products containing asbestos owed a duty to family members of individuals who carried asbestos dust home on their clothing to warn of the danger from contact with the dust. The Court of Appeals concluded that, at least prior to the adoption of OSHA regulations in 1972, the manufacturer had no duty to warn family members who were not directly in contact with the product and had no relationship with the manufacturer. The Court left open whether a duty existed post-1972 when the OSHA regulations went into effect.
The Plaintiff, Jocelyn Farrar (“Ms. Farrar”), lived with other family members in her grandparents’ home from the time she was a baby in the early 1950s until she was married in 1974. Her grandfather, John Hentgen (“Mr. Hentgen”), was a mechanic in the construction industry who worked directly with, or in the vicinity of, asbestos-laden products from 1925 until the 1970s. Mr. Hentgen wore street clothes to and from work, but would change into work clothes at the job site, which he kept in the car during the week and brought home to be washed on the weekends. While she was a teenager in the 1960s, Ms. Farrar was assigned the task of shaking out and laundering Mr. Hentgen’s work clothes. For approximately six (6) months in 1968 to 1969, Mr. Hentgen insulated pipes at the Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C. Mr. Hentgen worked in the immediate vicinity of workers installing drywall who applied and sanded the Defendant Georgia Pacific, LLC’s (“Georgia Pacific”) drywall joint compound. At that time, Georgia Pacific’s joint compound contained asbestos. The sanding allegedly created dust which got on Mr. Hentgen’s skin, hair, and clothing. Ms. Farrar was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2008.
Following her diagnosis, Ms. Farrar filed suit against Georgia Pacific in Circuit Court in Baltimore City for negligence and strict liability. A jury returned a verdict for Ms. Farrar against Georgia Pacific for over $5 million. Georgia Pacific appealed the verdict, arguing that the company owed no duty to warn Ms. Farrar of the danger from its product, but the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court judgment.
On appeal, Georgia Pacific argued that it had no duty to warn Ms. Farrar because Georgia Pacific had no relationship with her, she never used its product, nor was she a bystander where the product was used. Ms. Farrar countered that product liability cases extend a duty to warn to anyone within the general field of danger who may come into contact with the product. She further argued that it was forseeable that those working in the vicinity of Georgia Pacific’s drywall product would get asbestos dust on their clothes and bring it home with them where other household members would be exposed to dust, so they should be entitled to a warning of danger.
In response to Ms. Farrar’s argument, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that the Court of Special Appeals had previously held that it was forseeable that workers would bring home work clothes covered in asbestos dust and thereby expose their families to harm. See ACandS v. Abate, 121 Md. App. 590 (1998); Anchor Packing v. Grimshaw, 115 Md. App. 134 (1997). The Court noted that in Grimshaw, the court relied on expert testimony that it was “known in the industry since 1930 . . . that it is important for workers not to bring toxic substances home on their clothing and thereby expose their families to it.” Id. at 194.
The Court stated that there was a major gap in the intermediate court’s analysis because, despite the known danger of bringing “toxic substances” into the home dating to 1930, the connection between exposure to asbestos and lung disease was not recognized until at least three (3) decades later. Because liability should only be imposed when a supplier knows or reasonably should that a product is dangerous, a duty to warn could not be imposed on Georgia Pacific for the time period in question. Rather, the Court found that OSHA regulations adopted in 1972 were the strongest indicator of when tracking asbestos dust on clothing into the home was widely recognized as a significant health hazard.
The Court also considered whether a warning would have been effective and stated that it was unclear how, in an era before home computers and social media, the hundreds or thousands of manufacturers of products containing asbestos could have warned household members like Ms. Farrar who had no connection with the product, the manufacturer, the worker’s employer, or the premises where the product was used, not to have contact with dusty work clothes of household members exposed to asbestos. Further, prior to the OSHA regulations in 1972, employers were not required to provide safety measures such as protective clothing, changing rooms, and safe laundering, so even if the danger was forseeable to Georgia Pacific, the danger could not have been avoided by providing a warning. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that Georgia Pacific owed no duty to warn Ms. Farrar and reversed the decision of the Court of Special Appeals.
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