Who is liable for asbestos exposure injuries when multiple employers are involved?

The question of who is ultimately liable for asbestos-related injuries in a multiple-exposure and multiple-employer scenario is a complicated one. The law of the state where the case is filed usually dictates the answer. Even in the simplest of scenarios, asbestos litigation can be exceedingly complex due to the sheer number of parties normally involved. 

Asbestos Laws by State - Exclusive Remedy

Laws regarding asbestos lawsuits vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some states, such as Michigan, employers are not legitimate targets for these types of suits. Worker’s compensation laws are an employee’s exclusive remedy for injuries sustained on the job. States in the Ninth Judicial Circuit, with California being the largest, operate under a different and more plaintiff-friendly set of rules. 

In states such as Michigan, a prospective plaintiff could work for any number of companies that used asbestos and still be prevented from suing those companies in civil court. Exclusive remedy states generally ban injured workers from suing their employer. In exchange for protection for civil suits, employers are required by law to carry worker’s compensation insurance and pay into a state worker’s compensation fund. When an employee is injured on or through their job, benefits are paid through the worker’s compensation policy or from the state fund. The benefits generally cover medical expenses and a percentage of lost wages. Companies pay fixed expenses and are insulated from potential multi-million dollar verdicts, while workers generally get compensated for injuries. There is give and take on both sides.

However, in asbestos exposure cases, the potential financial benefits of filing a lawsuit can far exceed any statutory worker’s compensation award. In exclusive remedy states, asbestos plaintiffs generally focus their suits on the manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos containing products, as well as the owners of the premises at which exposure occurred. Due to the exclusive remedy of worker’s compensation, employers are (for the most part) immune from civil suits.

Jurisdictions That Allow Personal Injury Lawsuits

If you live in a jurisdiction that allows personal injury lawsuits against an employer, the waters begin to get murky. Often, asbestos plaintiffs have been exposed through work performed for multiple employers over the years. A boilermaker, for example, could work for a shipyard, an auto plant and a power company over the course of his career. And each job may have involved exposure to asbestos. So which employer is responsible? The first? The last? All of them? Generally, this question is a matter of law. States and/or federal circuits have made or interpreted laws that define exactly how asbestos exposure is analyzed in a multiple-employer and multiple-exposure situation. These laws can be broad, covering all types of jobs or methods of exposure. They can also be very narrow, covering a specific subset of employers and employees.

In California, for example, a recent Ninth Circuit decision interpreted what happens in a multiple-employer/multiple-exposure scenario under a law called the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA). This law deals specifically with longshoremen and their families. It's an example of a narrow-in-scope law. The Ninth Circuit looked at the case of a shipyard carpenter that worked for Willamette Iron & Steel Co. (WISCO) in 1956, for the Albina Company later that year, and then for Lockheed until 1960. He was exposed to asbestos at each job, contracted mesothelioma and died in 2002. His wife filed an asbestos injury lawsuit against all three under the LHWCA. The court detailed a four-part process, specific to California law, that creates a framework for analyzing the timing of each job along with the relevant exposure, if any.

Consulting an Asbestos Attorney

Each and every asbestos case is different. As such, it is essential that prospective asbestos plaintiffs consult with an experienced asbestos attorney or personal injury attorney before filing a case, especially when multiple employers may be involved. Asbestos litigation has been going on for years, and employers whose practices allegedly caused employees to contract asbestosis, mesothelioma or other asbestos-related injuries will almost certainly have a team of experienced attorneys representing their interests. It is incumbent upon a prospective asbestos plaintiff to make sure an experienced personal injury attorney is representing his or her interests.