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The premise is simple: you hurt someone, you take responsibility for your actions. For some reason, the rules don’t always apply to corporations, especially if your state has been bamboozled into so-called tort reform: limiting an injured person’s right to be compensated for injuries someone else caused.

The Ohio Supreme Court determined today that a woman who had been exposed to asbestos, and subsequently died from asbestos-related mesothelioma, could not even bring a case against Goodyear Tire & Rubber for negligently exposing her to asbestos, because her exposure occurred outside the confines of the Goodyear property:

Clayton Adams of Cleveland was exposed to workplace asbestos while he was employed by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber company between 1973 and 1983. During that period Clayton’s wife, Mary Adams, routinely shook asbestos-bearing dust from his work clothes in the course of doing her husband’s laundry. In March 2007, Mary was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, a lung disease linked to inhalation of asbestos fibers. She died of the disease four months later.

Clayton Adams and the administratrix of Mary’s estate, Cheryl Boley, filed a lawsuit against multiple defendants including Goodyear in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, asserting among other claims that Goodyear had been negligent in exposing its workers’ family members to the risk of asbestos-related illness arising from asbestos dust the workers brought home on their persons and clothing.

Goodyear won the case, not on the merits, but because Ohio Revised Code 2307.941(A)(1), a “tort reform” provision enacted in 2005, exempts property owners from liability “for any injury to any individual resulting from asbestos exposure unless that individual’s alleged exposure occurred while the individual was at the premises owner’s property.” Rather than striking down this provision as unconstitutional denial of Mary’s right to justice, the Ohio Supreme Court simply took this as an exercise in statutory interpretation. Read the full case (pdf).

What do you think about this type of tort “deform”? Does this somehow help reduce frivolous lawsuits? With two Ohio Supreme Court candidates pledging to bring balance back to the court, is there hope for Ohio? Leave a comment below!

Update: Justice Pfeifer’s dissent is well worth the read. Here’s an excerpt:

The majority opinion waxes poetic about its duty to read the statute and nothing but the statute, neither adding words to, nor subtracting words from, the statute, but then adds words to the statute. In syllabus law, the majority opinion states that "[a] premises owner is not liable in tort for claims arising from asbestos exposure originating from asbestos on the owner’s property, unless the exposure occurred at the owner’s property." But the statute doesn’t refer to where the asbestos "originates." The statute states merely that a claim for "exposure to asbestos on the premises owner’s property" must comply with certain requirements. By its plain words, the statute applies only to plaintiffs who claim they were exposed to asbestos on a premises owner’s property.

Boley has a completely different claim. She claims that Adams was exposed to asbestos in Adams’s own home, not on Goodyear’s property. . . . It seems mean-spirited to deny her claim while so obviously misconstruing it.

Whether the claim has merit is not for me to decide. . . . At the very least, Boley should have a chance to establish the claim she is making instead of the unprovable claim that the majority insists, or pretends, she is making. The majority opinion misses the forest because it cannot see around one really big tree. R.C. 2307.841 does not subsume the entire body of negligence law. I dissent.

At the very least, indeed.

3 Comments

  1. Gravatar for Christine Zuniga
    Christine Zuniga

    How can their liability end at their front gate, if what they did wrong extended beyond that?

  2. Gravatar for Melissa Kelly

    This is tragic. Mary's story is a common one. There are so many people who were exposed to asbestos when their husband/father/grandfather brought it home on their clothing. This ruling does absolutely nothing to limit "frivolous" law suits. Rather, it serves only to deprive deserving, vulnerable plaintiffs of their measure of justice in our courts.

  3. Gravatar for William Eadie

    Thanks for the feedback. Christine, I'm not sure why they put arbitrary boundaries on the liability, when obviously (as Melissa notes) the harm doesn't stop there. But that's part-and-parcel with tort deform: low the costs of hurting people.

    I'm going to add some of the dissent, by Justice Pfeifer, which hits the real point here: denying justice by (mis)construing a statute (and a bad statute, at that).

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