Supreme Court rules employer not immune from asbestos liability

By: - June 17, 2022 4:00 pm

Justices were split on whether 2017 legislation protected a business from liability for fatal asbestos exposure. (Photo by Getty Images)

A relatively new Iowa law does not protect employers from lawsuits brought by employees who were sickened by asbestos exposure 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 decision reverses lower court rulings in a lawsuit brought by the survivors of Charles Beverage. He worked as a construction laborer and contractor at an aluminum plant in Bettendorf owned by Alcoa from the 1950s to 1970s, court records show.

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

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

Earlier that year, Iowa joined a growing number of states that sought to restrict litigation that arises from asbestos exposures. It required affected people to make claims against trusts that were set up as part of asbestos manufacturers’ bankruptcy proceedings before suing others. It gave preference to claims by people who were already experiencing physical ailments from asbestos exposure. Some had successfully sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars before showing symptoms.

It also said: “A defendant in an asbestos action … shall not be liable for exposures from a product or component part made or sold by a third party.”

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

In the Supreme Court ruling released Friday, the majority decided that the law does not apply to lawsuits tied to workplace safety. Instead, it applies to liabilities from products that have components 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 assembly intended to eliminate all common law claims against all defendants except asbestos product manufacturers or sellers, it could have much more directly done so without burying it in a subsection focused on procedure,” Justice Dana Oxley wrote in the majority opinion.

Oxley said the decision was formed by a bigger-picture view of the legislation, taking into account how it had been subsequently modified and how the wording mirrored other legalese that pertains to product liability.

Justice Thomas Waterman disagreed: “Mesothelioma is a horrible disease,” he wrote in a dissent. “Reasonable people can argue that there are circumstances when even a non-seller or non-manufacturer of asbestos should be liable in an asbestos action. However, the legislature enacted a different rule in 2017, and we are obligated to follow it.”

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

The majority’s decision means that the lawsuit can proceed again in district court.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.