Summary Judgment Granted to Employer’s Defendants Overturned on Appeal | Goldberg Segalla

Venue: Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Richard and Pamela Shellenberger filed a lawsuit seeking damages from several defendants, including Mr. Shellenberger’s employers – Kreider Dairy Farms Inc. and Noah W. Kreider & Sons LLP (respondent) – for his exposure to asbestos and subsequent diagnosis of mesothelioma. where he finally died. In particular, they alleged that Mr Shellenberger was exposed to asbestos through maintenance work he carried out from 1972 to September 1980 on the boiler at Kreider Farms milk processing plant.

The applicants moved for summary judgment, alleging that there was no evidence that they had breached a duty to Mr Shellenberger, since they were unaware of the dangers of asbestos during his employment. The Court of Appeal granted the applicants’ motion for summary judgment. Ms. Shellenberger (appellant) filed a motion for reconsideration, which the trial court denied. The complainant appealed.

In reviewing the trial court’s order, the Supreme Court first defined the applicants’ duty of care towards their employees, including Mr Shellenberger, as “a duty to protect them not only from known dangers, but also from those discovered with reasonable care.” In addition, the complainants “have a duty to their employees to provide and maintain a safe work environment consistent with the conduct of a proper, prudent person who, as a person with experience in the industry, has special knowledge. . . . This includes taking steps to protect their employees from conditions that could harm them close employees and take appropriate action if discovered.” The Superior Court found that the trial court erred not in adopting the reasonable standard of care but in applying the standard. That is, the trial court focused solely on whether the appellants actually had knowledge of the dangers of asbestos, rather than determining whether there was evidence that they should have known of the dangers. The Superior Court agreed with the trial court that the appellants lacked factual knowledge, but found that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to determine that the appellants should have been aware of the dangers associated with asbestos. Indeed, the applicant produced reports, medical journals and publications which show that the dangers of asbestos were “well known” in the 1960s. In addition, the complainant pointed out that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its standards for exposure to asbestos in the workplace in June 1972 – the same month that the Kreider Farms milk processing plant began operations. Since the applicant submitted sufficient evidence to establish a genuine issue of material fact, that the applicants breached a duty to Mr Shellenberger by failing to protect him from exposure to asbestos, the Supreme Court found that the trial court erred in its summary judgment by complainants had enacted.

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Read the full decision here.