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Maryland high court denies GP's liability for family mesothelioma

The State of Maryland’s highest court ruled recently that Georgia-Pacific Corp. does not have to pay a woman who lost a lung to mesothelioma the $5 million a lower court had ordered. Why? Although the asbestos that sickened her was clearly from Georgia-Pacific products, her exposure was second-hand and took place in the 1960s, before the full danger of second-hand exposure was confirmed, the court said. Therefore, she had no legitimate product liability claim against the corporate giant.

The woman was exposed to asbestos while doing her grandfather’s laundry. Between 1968 and 1969, he worked at a building where Georgia-Pacific drywall cement was being applied, and the woman testified that his work clothes were often so caked with dust from the product, which contained asbestos, that she had to shake them out before they could be washed.

In 2008, the woman was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos. We also know now that the family members of workers who used asbestos have often been exposed to sufficient amounts of the deadly fiber to cause mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases simply by coming into contact with those workers’ clothes.

In Oct. 2009, a trial court found Georgia-Pacific liable for the woman’s asbestos exposure and awarded her $5 million for her lost lung and other losses. The state’s immediate appellate court upheld that award.

The high court reversed that award unanimously. “Although the danger to asbestos in the workplace was well-recognized at least by the 1930s, the danger from exposure in the household to asbestos dust brought home by workers … was not made publicly clear until much later,” the ruling reads.

The court found that the danger of second-hand asbestos exposure wasn’t fully known until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued federal regulations to protect workers from the fiber in 1972. Since this woman was exposed in the 1960s, the court reasoned, Georgia-Pacific wasn’t in a position to be sure that its products could harm people through second-hand exposure, so it had no duty to warn workers’ relatives of that danger.

In an ordinary product liability case, all the plaintiff needs to show is that the product is unreasonably dangerous when used as expected. If a manufacturer puts and unreasonably dangerous product on the market, or fails to warn users of unavoidable hazards, it is responsible for any harm the product caused.

Asbestos liability cases are handled somewhat differently -- but the difference was meant in large part to make it easier, not harder, for victims of asbestos exposure to get compensation for the harm these deadly products caused. This ruling seems far out of step with that purpose.

Source: Insurance Journal, "Maryland Court Rules Asbestos Firms Not Responsible for Family Exposure," July 11, 2013

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