As a southern Illinois product liability lawyer, I was interested to see a recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling in an asbestos exposure case from nearby Madison County. In Simpkins v. CSX Corp., the plaintiff was unusual — not a worker exposed to asbestos through a job, but the wife of such a worker. Annette Simpkins alleged she developed mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos brought home on the clothing of her husband, Ronald. Though Annette Simpkins died of the cancer a few months after filing, her daughter and special administrator, Cynthia Simpkins, continued the case. The trial court dismissed, finding CSX owed no duty to a third party like Simpkins, but the Illinois appeals court and ultimately the state’s Supreme Court reversed, finding the court hadn’t taken steps to determine whether she had a claim.
Ronald was employed by CSX from 1958 to 1964. Simpkins alleged that during that time, he brought home asbestos fibers on his clothes and body from asbestos used in CSX’s premises. It was not specified what Ronald did for the railroad. She contended that CSX knew or should have known that exposure to asbestos posed an unreasonable risk of harm to family members like her. She made claims of strict liability for using the asbestos; negligence for failing to take safety measures; and willful and wanton misconduct. CSX moved to dismiss on the grounds that it owed no legal duty to a non-employee like Simpkins. After the substitution of Cynthia Simpkins and a later hearing, the trial court dismissed but allowed an interlocutory appeal on the claims against CSX, which were severed from those against other defendants. The appeals court reversed and the defendant appealed again.
The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed again, finding a duty to third parties like Simpkins may exist — but said merely being the spouse of an employee is not enough. Rather, it said, the question is whether the defendant could reasonably foresee the third party’s injury. To make that ruling, it delved into the question of whether there was a relationship between CSX and Simpkins creating a duty of care. It’s true that Illinois law does not create a general obligation to protect or rescue a stranger, the court said, but when engaging in behaviors with a reasonably foreseeable risk of injury, everyone has an duty to protect others from that risk. Among the factors establishing this duty is the foreseeabilty of the injury. However, in this case, the Illinois Supreme Court noted, Simpkins failed to allege facts specific enough to analyze foreseeability, and CSX raised the issues for the first time in the instant appeal. As a result, it remanded the case for further consideration without considering other factors or ways to find a special duty. Justice Freeman dissented, arguing that the court should have reached the substance of the case.
As a Missouri toxic exposure attorney, I would also be interested in having the issue resolved for good. As the dissent notes, the issue has split the Illinois appeals courts, with another court finding no duty owed in “household” asbestos cases like this one. The question is clearly an important one for families suffering from mesothelioma, as well as for the employers and ex-employers that might be liable for the injuries. However, I do agree with the court that the issue warrants more exploration than simply dismissing on the grounds that Simpkins never worked for CSX; “household” asbestos exposure has been known and even a subject of litigation for years. As a St. Louis dangerous product lawyer, I would prefer that the people of Illinois retain the right to sue the known source of such a deadly cancer, even if the relationship is indirect.
If you’ve been seriously hurt by a dangerous or defective consumer product, including workplace exposure to harmful substances, you should call Carey, Danis & Lowe for help. To discuss your rights and your legal options at a free consultation, call us at 1-877-678-3400 or send us an email today.
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