Who Has a Duty to Warn Workers About Asbestos Dangers?

Asbestos Cement

Individuals exposed to asbestos often have legal claims against companies that fail to warn them about these dangers. That much is clear.

But who has the duty to warn workers are exposed on the job? Is it the employer? What if a contractor, shipping company or other visitor to the workplace does something that ends up exposing workers to asbestos?

What if equipment used in the workplace (e.g., a boiler or ventilation system) distributes asbestos fibers? What if employees are exposed to asbestos while working off-site? Is the employer still responsible? Does anyone else also have a duty to warn?

The answers to these questions aren’t always clear and depend on a number of factors. Asbestos lawsuits have been around for a while, so this is a well-developed area of law. But facts make or break a case, and each case differs.

Nearly 40 years after the first asbestos lawsuits, there are still new cases and questions about who has a duty to warn workers about asbestos dangers. Asbestos exposure is clearly linked to mesothelioma, which affects up to 3,000 new Americans a year.

Let’s take a look at how an Illinois court recently handled this question in a case involving a railroad company and asbestos plant workers.

Illinois Court Rules Railroad Did Not Have To Warn Asbestos Workers

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Illinois Central Railroad Co. transported asbestos to and from an asbestos plant operated by Unarco Industries. Inc. In separate lawsuits, plant workers alleged that they were exposed to asbestos fibers that accumulated on the boxcars.

John Monical and Johnie Brown worked at a Unarco asbestos plant during the 1950s. Years later they developed asbestosis and filed a lawsuit for their injuries in 2006.

Ronald Compton also worked at a Unarco asbestos plant for three months in 1961. He developed asbestosis and died in 2007. His wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit later that year.

The plaintiffs alleged that the railroad negligently transported asbestos to and from the plant and failed to warn them about asbestos dangers. Specifically, they argued that after the railroad company delivered asbestos in the boxcars, it removed the empty boxcars in a manner that disbursed asbestos fibers into the air in and around the plant.

The plaintiffs also argued that once the railroad took possession of the empty boxcars to remove them, it had a duty to warn workers about the resulting asbestos dangers.

The railroad company unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the cases. It appealed. The Illinois Supreme Court ultimately ordered the appeals court to consolidate and consider the appeals.

In January, the court disagreed with the asbestos workers. The Illinois Central Railroad Co. had no duty to pick up and unload the boxcars so that asbestos fibers would not accumulate. It also had no duty to warn the workers about the asbestos fibers on boxcars. The court chose not to create a new duty under this case.

The court specifically noted two similar cases from other jurisdictions where carriers (e.g., a railroad and a trucking company) were not in position to have special knowledge about handling their cargo. The court decided that, like those cases, the defendant was just a “peripheral transportation company.”

There was no legal relationship between the parties to create a duty to remove the boxcars differently or to warn the workers before removing unloaded boxcars.

Always Get Legal Advice on Your Case

But does this mean that carriers like railroads and trucking companies never have a duty to warn workers? No, the court’s opinion doesn’t go that far. Liability depends on whether the facts of a specific case suggest a relationship that leads to a duty to warn.

If the facts had been different (e.g., the defendant was more than a “peripheral transportation company” or had special knowledge about the cargo), the court may have ruled differently. That’s why it’s always wise to talk to attorney about your specific case.

It’s also worth noting that the court’s decision only involvedĀ  claims against Illinois Central Railroad Co. It did not involve the claims against other defendants in the lawsuits, including Pneumo Abex Corp., Owens-Illinois, Inc., and Honeywell International, Inc.

This case is a good reminder that multiple parties can be responsible for asbestos injuries. Courts consider a variety of factors to determine whether each party has duty to warn (e.g., the likelihood of injury and the size of the burden in protecting against injury).

The process of determining who is responsible can be tricky. That is why it’s important to talk to an asbestos attorney about the facts of your particular case.


Karen Marshall has more than 17 years of legal experience and is an attorney with The Peterson Firm. She has been contributing to The Mesothelioma Center since 2011 and writes about asbestos-related legal issues and blogs for Asbestos.com.

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