By Jackson Otto on July 25, 2018
In Ramsey v. Georgia Southern University Advanced Development Center, et al., C.A. No. N14C-01-287 ASB, Delaware’s Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Superior Court granting summary judgment to manufacturers of asbestos-containing products in a take-home exposure case. Plaintiffs alleged that Elizabeth Ramsey, wife of Robert Ramsey, was the person who did the family’s laundry and regularly washed her husband’s asbestos covered uniform. Mrs. Ramsey died from lung cancer in 2015.
Defendant-manufacturers initially obtained summary judgment by arguing that they had no duty to warn Mrs. Ramsey of the dangers of take-home asbestos exposure, relying on a line of Delaware cases holding that employers had no liability to spouses of their employees for take-home exposures, because they only owed a duty of care to the employees themselves (assuming that the employer only engaged in nonfeasance/inaction rather than misfeasance/harmful action). The Supreme Court in Ramsey distinguished these decisions, stating that manufacturers owe a general duty of care to all foreseeable persons to warn of the hazards of its asbestos-containing products when it is “unlikely” that the user will discover the dangerous condition.
The Supreme Court held that it was foreseeable that asbestos fibers would cover the clothes of Mrs. Ramsey’s husband during the course of his work and that she would in turn be exposed when doing his laundry. The court qualified that the manufacturers did not have a duty to warn her directly, but rather to provide information on dangers and proper laundering instructions to Mr. Ramsey’s employer, which would in turn assume the duty to warn (relieving the manufacturer of any further duty). This case effectively reconsidered prior Delaware holdings in the Riedel and Price cases, opining that an employer is actually engaging in misfeasance, not nonfeasance, by causing an employee to work with asbestos which is brought home on his or her clothes. The failure to warn by the employer or manufacturer, which was held to be non-culpable nonfeasance under Riedel and Price, is now actionable because a duty to warn arose at the time that the employer or manufacturer exposed the employee to asbestos (which the Ramsey court considered misfeasance).
This decision will expand the duties to warn of both employers and manufacturers in asbestos cases by interpreting situations that may have formerly been considered nonfeasance by Delaware courts to be premised on earlier misfeasance, and therefore be actionable.