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KOHR v. RAYBESTOS-MANHATTAN

September 21, 1981

Eugene KOHR, et al.,
v.
RAYBESTOS-MANHATTAN, INC.; Rose DeCIO, v. JOHNS-MANVILLE CORP., et al.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WEINER

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Presented to us in these and a number of other cases are claims of products liability personal injury arising out of the alleged exposure of the plaintiffs, or their spouses or decedents, while employed by the defendants, to asbestos or asbestos products produced and/or sold by the defendants.

The defendants assert as a defense to these actions the Pennsylvania Workmen's Compensation Act's exclusivity of remedy provision, which they contend provides an employee's sole legal means for recovery from his employer for work related injuries, and which they further contend thus precludes the plaintiffs from bringing these actions. Plaintiffs urge us to adopt the dual capacity theory, under which the defendants, in their capacity as manufacturers of products which allegedly caused injury to the plaintiffs, would be subject to products liability, despite the limitations of the Workmen's Compensation Act.

 Thus we are called upon to consider the issue of the defendants' dual capacity as both employers of those injured and manufacturers of the products allegedly causing injury, and the impact, if any, of that dual capacity on the Pennsylvania Workmen's Compensation Act and the doctrine of products liability. Intertwined with this problem is the question of how to balance two of the tensions inherent in our federal constitutional system of government: that resulting from our dual, independent federal and state court systems, and that resulting from the separation of governmental powers into three co-equal branches.

 I

 Due respect on the part of the federal government, including the judiciary, for the sovereignty of the individual states is the essence of federalism. Thus, as a federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction, we are compelled to follow state law. As is a state court, we are guided in our deliberations by legislative enactment and judicial precedents, but unlike a state court, we are not free to overrule existing state precedent or chart the future course of state law in such manner as we may see fit.

 Likewise, due to the pervasive scheme of checks and balances found in both the federal and state, including Pennsylvania, constitutions, and designed to prevent accumulation of excessive power in any one branch of government, courts must defer to the will of the legislature in interpreting the reach of statutory provisions and determining the scope of the common law as it may be legislatively modified.

 Consequently, though courts may at times desire to forge ahead with the law in an attempt to keep pace with an ever evolving modern society, we may be circumscribed in our ability to do so by the dictates of the Constitution and the mandate of prior judicial rulings. It is precisely such a dilemma with regard to the Pennsylvania Workmen's Compensation Act with which we are presented by these cases, for guided by these precepts, we must determine the extent of the exclusivity of remedy provision of that Act when asserted as a defense to an action for products liability.

 II

 A

 The right of an employee to compensation for accidentally inflicted work related injury or death is governed by the Pennsylvania Workmen's Compensation Act, 77 P.S. § 481(a), which provides as follows:

 
"The liability of an employer under this act shall be exclusive and in place of any and all other liability to such employes, his legal representatives, husband or wife, parents, dependents, next of kin or anyone otherwise entitled to damages in any action at law or otherwise on account of any injury or death ... or occupational disease...."

 Thus, by its terms, the Act provides the sole and exclusive remedy for injuries within its scope. Wagner v. National Indemnity Co., 492 Pa. 154, 422 A.2d 1061 (1980); Socha v. Metz, 385 Pa. 632, 123 A.2d 837 (1956). See, Bayless v. ...


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