Law School Case Brief
Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation Co. - 266 S.W.3d 347 (Tenn. 2008)
When the existence of a particular duty is not a given or when the rules of the established precedents are not readily applicable, courts will turn to public policy for guidance. Doing so necessarily favors imposing a duty of reasonable care where a defendant's conduct poses an unreasonable and foreseeable risk of harm to persons or property. When conducting this analysis, the courts have considered, among other factors: (1) the foreseeable probability of the harm or injury occurring; (2) the possible magnitude of the potential harm or injury; (3) the importance or social value of the activity engaged in by the defendant; (4) the usefulness of the conduct to the defendant; (5) the feasibility of alternative conduct that is safer; (6) the relative costs and burdens associated with that safer conduct; (7) the relative usefulness of the safer conduct; and (8) the relative safety of alternative conduct. With these factors firmly in mind, Tennessee's courts use a balancing approach to determine whether the particular risk should give rise to a duty of reasonable care. The greater the risk of harm, the less degree of foreseeability is required. During the balancing process, it is permissible for the courts to consider the contemporary values of Tennessee's citizens.
Plaintiff father sought damages against defendant employer for his daughter's death from mesothelioma. The father alleged that his daughter contracted mesothelioma from his asbestos-contaminated work clothes, which he wore home from work every day for more than five years. Prior to her death, the daughter filed a wrongful death action, alleging negligence and a reasonable duty of care. The father was substituted as plaintiff after his daughter died. The employer moved for a judgment on the pleadings on the narrow ground that it owed no duty to its employee's daughter. The employer argued that it did not owe a duty to the daughter and that imposing such a duty on it would improperly create an affirmative obligation to act despite the absence of any special relationship between the employer and either the decedent daughter or her father. he employer moved for a judgment on the pleadings on the narrow ground that it owed no duty to its employee's daughter. The trial court granted the employer's motion. The father appealed the dismissal of his daughter's wrongful death claim, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. The employer sought review.
In a wrongful death negligence action, did the deceased daughter of an asbestos employee fall within a class of persons that could, with reasonable foreseeability, be harmed by exposure to asbestos due to her extended close contact with the asbestos-contaminated work clothes of defendant's employee?
Affirming, the Supreme Court of Tennessee determined that the plaintiff's complaint stated a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Court applied a balancing approach to determine whether the particular risk should give rise to a duty of reasonable care, with a special focus on the foreseeability factor. The Court held that defendant employer owed a duty to those who regularly and for extended periods of time came into close contact with the asbestos-contaminated work clothes of its employees to prevent them from being exposed to a foreseeable and unreasonable risk of harm. The Court held that based on the facts alleged in the complaint, the employer was a knowledgeable and sophisticated company that was fully aware that: (1) it used materials containing asbestos in its manufacturing operations; (2) high volumes of asbestos fibers were being deposited on its employees' work clothes; and (3) exposure to asbestos fibers created a substantial health risk. Given this knowledge, the employer had a duty to use reasonable care to prevent exposure to asbestos fibers not only to its employees but also to those who came into close regular contact with its employees' contaminated work clothes over an extended period of time. Therefore, the trial court erred by granting the employer's motion for judgment on the pleadings, and the court of appeals correctly reversed that order. The case was remanded for further proceedings.
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