The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on July 7, 2016 that companies can be held liable to their employees’ roommates or partners if those individuals are sickened by exposure to toxic substances carried home on workers’ bodies or clothing, known as a “take-home toxic-tort theory of liability.” Schwartz v. Accuratus Corp., No. A-73-14 (N.J., July 6, 2016)
The New Jersey Supreme Court took up the question at the request of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The case is from 2012 and was originally filed in Pennsylvania state court, but was removed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. A woman named Brenda Schwartz brought suit against Accuratus Ceramic Corporation, a ceramics manufacturer that has a facility in Warren County, New Jersey. Accuratus manufactures and uses products containing beryllium, which can cause chronic beryllium disease, and lead to scarring of the lungs. Schwartz was diagnosed with the disease, and claimed it was due to exposure to her then-boyfriend, now-husband, and his roommate’s clothes. Both men worked at the facility.
The district court found that Accuratus had no duty to Schwartz under New Jersey law, because Schwartz was not the spouse of either man, distinguishing the case from a prior decision in which the New Jersey Supreme had extended duty in these kinds of cases to employees’ spouses. Schwartz appealed to the Third Circuit, and the Third Circuit asked the New Jersey Supreme Court for its views. The Court did not establish a bright-line rule, but stated that liability could be established on a case-by-case basis by analyzing a number of factors. Factors to be taken into account include the employee’s relationship to the exposed individual, the foreseeability of the individual’s exposure, and the toxicity of the substance in question.