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Schwartz v. Accuratus Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 30, 2017

BRENDA ANN SCHWARTZ and PAUL GRANT SCHWARTZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
ACCURATUS CORPORATION, in its own right and as successor in interest to Accuratus Ceramic Corporation, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          SCHMEHL, J.

         This case, concerning Plaintiff Brenda Schwartz's injuries caused by exposure to beryllium allegedly carried home by employees of Defendant Accuratus, has returned to this Court following an appeal and remand. This Court previously dismissed the negligence claim against Defendant, holding that Defendant's liability under New Jersey law for “take-home” exposure did not extend to Mrs. Schwartz because she was merely a roommate and girlfriend of Defendant's employees rather than a spouse. The Third Circuit certified to the New Jersey Supreme Court the question of whether that state's law indeed limits take-home exposure liability to spouses; based on the response, the Third Circuit vacated this Court's decision and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the guidance provided by the New Jersey Supreme Court. In light of that guidance and absent a categorical bar to Mrs. Schwartz's claim as a non-spouse, this Court now denies the motion to dismiss.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         This matter has a complicated history. Some of the background can be carried over from this Court's prior opinion:

The primary Plaintiff is Brenda Ann Schwartz (“Brenda”), who allegedly suffers a variety of adverse health effects associated with chronic beryllium disease. Her husband, Paul Grant Schwartz (“Paul”), brings a loss of consortium claim. Both Plaintiffs are Pennsylvania residents. Defendants Accuratus Corporation (“Accuratus”) and Materion Brush Inc. (“Brush”) are two companies with plants in New Jersey manufacturing beryllium products.
As the name suggests, chronic beryllium disease results from exposure to beryllium, apparently in dust form; without undue focus on technical aspects at this stage, the factual and legal situation can be considered analogous to the more familiar issue of asbestos exposure. As with asbestos, exposure to beryllium can result from employment in facilities that work with it. However, Brenda was never employed by either Defendant; rather, she alleges she was exposed to beryllium carried home from work, on clothing and/or shoes, by Paul and a roommate named Gregory Altemose (“Altemose”).
Brenda and Paul met and began dating in 1978. Paul moved in with Altemose in 1979, and Brenda spent a lot of time at their apartment. In June 1980, Brenda married Paul and moved into the apartment, where all three lived together for a time. In 1978 and 1979-that is, when Brenda was merely dating Paul and visiting the apartment-Paul worked at Accuratus. Altemose also started at Accuratus in 1978, but continued working there until the present. Therefore, beryllium from Accuratus could have reached Brenda via Paul before they were married, or via Altemose, a roommate.
From 1979 through 1987, Paul worked at Brush. In addition, in 1978 and 1979, when Paul worked at Accuratus, Brush sold beryllium products to Accuratus, which may then have been used in further manufacturing processes at Accuratus. Therefore, beryllium from Brush could have reached Brenda via Paul while they were married, with Paul bringing it home directly from his employment at Brush, or via Altemose or Paul prior to the marriage bringing it home from employment at Accuratus (where at least some of the beryllium came from Brush).
Plaintiffs originally filed suit in state court. The suit named an additional Defendant, Dennis Tretter, a Pennsylvania citizen who was an Accuratus employee enforcing safety policies. On November 1, 2012, Defendants removed the action to this Court, arguing that Tretter was fraudulently joined to defeat diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiffs filed a motion to remand dealing with that issue, which Judge C. Darnell Jones denied on March 1, 2013. As discussed further below, Judge Jones's order (as well as a subsequent order denying reconsideration on April 5, 2013) examined Tretter's potential liability in a lengthy footnote and, finding none, ruled that Tretter's joinder was unfounded and jurisdiction in this Court on the basis of diversity was proper.

         Plaintiffs then filed an amended complaint, and both Accuratus and Brush moved to dismiss. This Court granted dismissal of several counts of the complaint; the dismissal included the negligence claim against Accuratus, for reasons more fully recounted below. All that remained were a claim for strict liability for abnormally dangerous activity against Accuratus, negligence and two strict liability claims against Brush, and separate counts for exemplary damages and Mr. Schwartz's loss of consortium against both Defendants. After this Court declined to certify its dismissal of the negligence claim against Accuratus for interlocutory appeal, Plaintiffs settled and voluntarily dismissed with prejudice all claims against Brush and also voluntarily dismissed with prejudice the remaining claim against Accuratus (though the counts for exemplary damages and loss of consortium were not specifically dismissed, they were of course dependent on the other claims). This terminated the case, allowing Plaintiffs to appeal this Court's dismissal of the negligence claim against Accuratus.

         As more fully explained in the discussion below, that dismissal of the negligence claim against Accuratus was based on this Court's reasoning that New Jersey precedent should be interpreted to limit take-home liability to spouses of the employees who carry home dangerous substances from defendant employers. On appeal, the Third Circuit certified the question to the New Jersey Supreme Court for further clarification. The New Jersey Supreme Court's response did not draw any specific conclusions about this particular case, but it did clarify that there should be no bright line limiting the duty to spouses and provided some factors to consider in determining whether there is a duty based on the circumstances of each take-home exposure case. In turn, the Third Circuit vacated this Court's dismissal of the negligence claim against Accuratus and remanded for further consideration in accordance with its own ruling and the New Jersey Supreme Court's guidance. This Court ordered supplemental briefing and oral argument, and now considers the motion to dismiss anew with respect to the negligence claim against Accuratus.

         Discussion

         An understanding of the issue for this remand must begin with a fuller description of this Court's reasons for the previous dismissal. This Court first determined that the negligence claim presented a false conflict situation and ruled that New Jersey law applied. As explained in the prior opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court had allowed for take-home exposure liability in the case of Olivo v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., holding that companies working with asbestos “owed a duty to spouses handling the workers' unprotected work clothing based on the foreseeable risk of exposure from asbestos borne home on contaminated clothing.” 895 A.2d 1143, 1149 (N.J. 2006). This Court noted that Olivo contained some language suggesting that the class of plaintiffs covered by take-home liability should be interpreted narrowly, including reference to “harm to a particular individual, ” id. at 1148, and countervailing concerns about “considerations of fairness and policy” and “limitless exposure to liability” id. at 1148, 1150. The Olivo court further described the duty as “focused on the particularized foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff's wife, who ordinarily would perform typical household chores that would include laundering the work clothes worn by her husband.” Id. at 1150.[1]

         This Court was considerably influenced by an earlier ruling in the case made before the matter was transferred to the undersigned. In that decision, Judge C. Darnell Jones had already dismissed the claims against Tretter, a safety supervisor at Accuratus. As explained ...


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