Asbestos – Is your Employer Responsible for Killing your Family?


We have heard about a major legal decision in the United States against an employer who was found to be legally responsible for exposing their employee's wife to asbestos. This is a powerful legal decision, as it has made an employer responsible for effects on their employee's family, and for indirect asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Mesothelioma

How did his wife die?

The employee went home from work, unaware that there were asbestos fibers in his clothing. When he gave his clothes to his wife to wash, she inhaled these microscopic fibres, ultimately resulting in her death some years later.

Barbara Bobo died of mesothelioma, a fatal asbestos related illness. Her husband, James, used to clean at a nuclear plant owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and unknown to himself was sweeping up asbestos fibres.

His wife couldn't be found to have worked with or lived around asbestos during her life, and so James made a claim against his former employer for exposing his wife to asbestos through him.

The TVA accepted that James was likely to have swept up asbestos, because it was used in the thermal insulation. However, they tried to argue that their duty was to their employee, and not his family, and therefore they weren't legally responsible for her death. Ignoring how crass such a defence is to a man who's lost his wife because of the work he did for them, the judge disagreed, and rejected the company's appeal, finding in favour of James Bobo. He gave two main reasons:

  • It wasn't unforeseeable that if James was sweeping up asbestos, that it would stay on his clothes, just like any other dust and debris
  • There were strong 'policy considerations' to acknowledge. There's a duty to family members in the work James did

Secondary Exposure

"James hasn't yet fallen victim to an asbestos related illness, however, this must be something that lies on his already weary mind" says Phillip Gower, Partner in Industrial Disease at Simpson Millar LLP.

"When an employee is exposed to asbestos, this is called a 'primary exposure'. When this transfers on to another person, in a more indirect way, such as how Mrs Bobo was exposed, this is called a 'secondary exposure'."

Examples of secondary exposure can include:

  • Laundry
  • Furniture
  • Hugging

Single asbestos fibres are microscopic, they can literally get anywhere. Imagine opening a hoover bag and blowing it across the room, to get an idea of how asbestos can spread, and how easily it can get into our lungs. It only takes one fibre.

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