Clarifying the Duty Owed to Family Members in Take-Home Asbestos Cases


A recent Court of Appeal decisions has provided further clarity to a series of decisions regarding the duty of asbestos defendants towards family members injured due to result of "take-home" asbestos exposures. In Beckering v. Shell Oil Co., Not B256407 (Calif. Ct. App. 2nd Dist., Div. 3) ("Beckering"), Appellant, Wanda Beckering, contended that she developed mesothelioma as a result of laundering her husband's asbestos-laden clothing. However, Shell Oil Company argued that they did not owe Mrs. Beckering a duty of care and that her claims should be dismissed pursuant to Campbell v. Ford Motor Co. (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 15 ("Campbell"), which held that premises owners and employers are not liable to the family members of their workers injured due to take-home asbestos exposure.

The trial court agreed with Shell Oil Company and granted a motion for summary judgment in its favor. On appeal Mrs. Beckering argued that Campbell should be narrowly read to apply to family members of employees of independent contractors exposed to asbestos, a relationship "too attenuated to support a duty of care." However, the Court of Appeals disagreed with Mrs. Beckering holding that Campbell did not turn on the independent contractor status of the plaintiff's family members. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling that Shell Oil Company did not owe a duty to Mrs. Beckering.

The Court of Appeals' decision in Beckering is an affirmation of another recent ruling in Haver v. BNSF Railway, (2014) 226 Cal.App.4th 1104 ("Haver"), wherein the Court of Appeals held that under Campbell, respondent BSNF Railway did not owe a duty to the wife of an employee who contended she developed mesothelioma as a result of laundering her husband's asbestos-laden clothing.

The facts of Beckering, Haver, and Campbell are readily distinguishable from Kesner, et al. v. The Superior Court of Alameda County, et al. NO. A136378 (Calif. Ct. App. 1st Dist., Div. 3) ("Kesner"), a take-home asbestos case we previously reported on. In Kesner, the Court of appeals held an asbestos manufacturer liable to a family member that acquired mesothelioma as a result of take-home asbestos exposures. Accordingly, whereas Beckering, Haver, andCampbell involved a claim under a premises liability theory, Kesner involved a claim under a product liability theory.

For the moment, these cases read in conjunction affirm the rule that in California take-home asbestos exposure claims may succeed under a product liability theory, but not under a premises liability theory. However, all this may change as both Haver and Kesner were recently granted review by the California Supreme Court. Indeed, it is important to note that while the majority opinion in Beckering affirmed the holding of Campbell, the dissenting opinion concluded that Shell Oil Company owed a duty to Mrs. Beckering, stating that "harm to a close family member, such as Beckering, who would be laundering an employee's work clothes, was foreseeable." Accordingly, further changes and clarifications could be coming depending on how the Justices of the California Supreme Court view the duties owed by asbestos defendants in take-home exposure cases.

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