Court Expands Spouse’s Rights in Asbestos Suits

State Court of Appeal

A California appeals court recognized, for the first time, the right of spouses to sue for loss of consortium from a partner’s premarital exposure to toxic substances with a long latency period, unknown at the time of the wedding.

A woman whose husband suffered an asbestos-related lung disease may pursue her loss of consortium claim against her husband’s employer, even though his exposure came long before they married.

The San Francisco-based First District Court of Appeal ruled that a wife’s claim survives even though the couple married in 2001 and her husband’s injury occurred between 1958 and 1995.  The decision breaks with prior precedent by recognizing that the right to sue begins, not with the first exposure, but when a couple learns of injuries from a disease arising from a “long-latency toxic exposure.”

In the past, a state appeals court held that there can be no loss of consortium claim when the injury occurs prior to marriage, whether the couple first learns of the injury before or after the marriage.

During Sandra and John Leonard’s marriage, John was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a fatal disease he contracted from asbestos exposure prior to their marriage. They sued his employer, John Crane, Inc.  Later, John Leonard dismissed his claim against Crane, but Sandra continued with her “loss of consortium” claim.

Justice Terence L. Bruiniers distinguished the legal precedent from the current asbestos-related case because of the long delay between exposure and development of a disease.  He disagreed that the date the injury is discovery is  irrelevant.

Bruiniers also held that Sandra’s claim is independent of John’s, allowing her to proceed even after he’d dropped his suit against the company for the asbestos injury itself.

The California Supreme Court first recognized loss of consortium claims in 1974, reasoning that one who negligently causes a severely disabling injury to an adult “may reasonably expect” that the injured person is married, and that the injury will cause the person’s spouse to suffer.

Sandra maintained that her loss of consortium claim began when John was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2010, despite that he was last exposed in 1995.

Crane argued that because they were not married at the time of the injury, Sandra was not entitled to sue. Bruiniers rejected the argument because of John Leonard’s ignorance of his asbestos-related disease before he married Sandra.

His legal claim did not arise until he learned of his diagnosis.  “It is difficult to see how different considerations should then apply to accrual of Sandra’s claim of loss of consortium,” Bruiniers explained.

“John’s dismissal of his cause of action against Crane has no impact on Sandra’s ability to pursue her loss of consortium claim.  They are separate causes of action,” wrote Bruiniers. The court ordered Crane to pay Sandra’s costs on appeal.

Justices Barbara J.R. Jones and Mark B. Simons joined Bruiniers’ opinion.

Case:  Leonard v. John Crane Inc.,  No. A133322

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