Md. high court: Manufacturer owed no duty to warn household members of asbestos dangers

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jul 8, 2013

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) -- Maryland's highest court ruled Monday that the maker of a joint compound owed no duty of care to a household member who, in this case, came in contact with the dust of the asbestos-containing compound while doing laundry.

Plaintiff Jocelyn Farrar sued Georgia Pacific LLC f/k/a Georgia Pacific Corporation over its Ready-Mix joint compound, used to smooth the joints between drywall slabs.

During the late 1960s, the compound contained asbestos.

From the time she was a baby in the early 1950s, until she married in 1974, Farrar lived with other family members in her grandparents' home.

Her grandfather, John Hentgen, was a mechanic in the construction industry who, beginning in 1925 and into the 1970s, worked directly with or in the vicinity of asbestos-laden products, including the dust from Georgia Pacific's joint compound.

Following her diagnosis of mesothelioma, Farrar filed suit in Baltimore City Circuit Court against more than 30 defendants, including Georgia Pacific.

By the time of trial, only her strict liability and negligence claims against Georgia Pacific and its cross-claims against three settling defendants remained at issue.

Following a two-week trial, the jury returned a substantial verdict in Farrar's favor -- more than $5 million. Georgia Pacific appealed.

The state Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court's judgment.

The Court of Appeals, in its 22-page opinion Monday, reversed the intermediate appeals court's and circuit court's rulings, pointing to the "skimpy state of knowledge" regarding the danger to household members from asbestos dust brought into the home prior to the adoption of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations in 1972.

The high court also pointed to the inability to give warnings directly to household members, like Farrar, and the inability of any warnings given at the time to have "any practical effect."

"With respect to implementation, in an era before home computers and social media, it is not at all clear how the hundreds or thousands of manufacturers and suppliers of products containing asbestos could have directly warned household members who had no connection with the product, the manufacturer or supplier of the product, the worker's employer or the owner of the premises where the asbestos product was being used, not to have contact with dusty work clothes of household members who were occupationally exposed to asbestos," Judge Alan Wilner, retired and specially assigned, wrote for the court.

"The best that the plaintiff offers in her brief was for Georgia Pacific to have 'spread the word' to distributors of the product, the owners of land on which the product was used, contractors who supervised the workers and union officials, and rely on them to inform everyone working in the vicinity of asbestos.

"Presumably, the word to be spread was that asbestos dust collected on work clothes could be dangerous if brought into the home."

Even if such warnings would have reached the workers, much less bystanders like Farrar, the court questioned what difference they would've made prior to the 1972 OSHA regulations.

"Mr. Hentgen did the best he could by keeping his work clothes in the car all week and bringing them home only on the weekend to be laundered, but that proved insufficient," Wilner wrote.

"The simple fact is that, even if Georgia Pacific should have foreseen back in 1968-69 that individuals such as Ms. Farrar were in a zone of danger, there was no practical way that any warning given by it to any of the suggested intermediaries would or could have avoided that danger."

Read the court's full opinion here.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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