Supreme Court rules employer not immune from asbestos liability

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A relatively new law in Iowa does not protect employers from lawsuits brought by employees sickened by exposure to asbestos at work, even if the asbestos-containing products were made or sold by someone else, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday in a split decision.

The 4-3 ruling overturns lower court rulings in a lawsuit brought by survivors of Charles Beverage. He worked as a construction worker and contractor at an aluminum plant in Bettendorf owned by Alcoa from the 1950s to the 1970s, according to court records.

Beverage was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in September 2015 and died weeks later. The disease is caused by exposure to asbestos.

In 2017, his children sued Alcoa and Iowa-Illinois Taylor Insulation — which installed asbestos-containing insulation in the plant — for an undetermined amount for causing his death.

Earlier that year, Iowa joined a growing number of states seeking to limit litigation stemming from asbestos exposures. It required those affected to make claims against the trusts created in the asbestos manufacturers’ bankruptcy proceedings before suing others. He gave preference to claims from people who already suffered physical ailments from exposure to asbestos. Some had successfully sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars before showing symptoms.

He also said: “A defendant in an asbestos action … will not be liable for exposures of a product or component manufactured or sold by a third party.”

On that basis, a district court judge dismissed the lawsuits against the two companies in 2019 because “this section of the code creates immunity for the defendants,” according to the judge’s ruling.

In Friday’s Supreme Court decision, the majority ruled that the law does not apply to workplace safety lawsuits. Instead, it applies to liabilities of products whose components are manufactured by more than one company. For example, the company that created the asbestos-containing part might be liable rather than someone who created the accompanying non-asbestos parts.

“If the general meeting intended to eliminate all common law claims against all defendants except the manufacturers or sellers of asbestos products, it could have done so much more directly without bury it in a procedurally-focused subsection,” Judge Dana Oxley wrote in the majority opinion.

Oxley said the decision was formed by an overview of the legislation, taking into account how it was subsequently changed and how the wording reflected other legal jargon relating to liability because of the products.

Judge Thomas Waterman disagreed: “Mesothelioma is a horrible disease,” he wrote in a dissent. “Reasonable people may argue that there are circumstances in which even a non-seller or non-manufacturer of asbestos should be liable in an asbestos action. However, the legislator adopted a different rule in 2017, and we are obliged to follow it.

Waterman said the complaint against Alcoa should be dismissed but the complaint against Iowa-Illinois Taylor Insulation should be pursued because it sold the asbestos-containing product.

The majority decision means the trial can resume in district court.

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