Pennsylvania Workers Regain Their Right of Action in Tort against Employers for Latent Occupational Diseases

Worker’s compensation legislation was part of great compromise in the rough-and-tumble battles between labor and management in the first few decades of the last century.  In virtually every state, employers had a common law duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace.  In tort litigation, however, employers enjoyed several powerful affirmative defenses:  contributory negligence, the fellow-servant rule, and assumption of risk.  Workers enjoyed increasingly sympathetic juries and generous damage awards.  Worker’s compensation statutes made recovery for most injuries a certainty, with schedules of damages that were deeply discounted from what might be had in a jury trial. In return for well-nigh absolute liability, employers gained certainty of outcome, reduction of administrative costs, and immunity to tort liability for all but intentional harms.

After World War II, tort law began to change dramatically.  Contributory negligence gave way to comparative negligence.  Assumption of risk defenses were curtailed, and the fellow-servant rule was severely modified or abandoned.  Labor was feeling buyers’ remorse over the workman’s compensation deal.

In 1965, the American Law Institute adopted § 402A which provided for “Special Liability of Seller of Product for Physical Harm to User or Consumer,” based upon concerns of unequal knowledge of defects and latent hazards of products sold to consumers. Liability followed for harm caused by a product irrespective of privity of contract or warranty, and even if “the seller has exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of his product.” Restatement (Second), Torts § 402A (2)(a),(b) (1965).

Section 402A was inspired by tort cases in New Jersey and California, involving consumer products, but the Restatement was quickly, and unthinkingly, applied to sales made to large manufacturing employer-purchasers in which there was no real inequality of knowledge between seller and purchaser, or hidden or latent hazard in the product or material. (Think about how knowledgeable the United States Navy was about the hazards of asbestos insulation products it bought for ship building.) Section 402 became the vehicle for injured workers to ditch their capped damages in worker’s compensation court, and to put their cases back in front of juries, with the prospect of unlimited awards for non-economic damages.

In the workers’ compensation era, very few injured workers succeeded in making out intentional torts that would overcome their employers’ immunity to suit. Late last year, however, Pennsylvania workers regained their common law right to sue employers for negligence and other torts, for occupational diseases that manifest more than 300 weeks after last employment. Section 301(c)(2) of the Pennsylvania’s Workman’s Compensation Act, 77 P.S. § 411(2) removes these delayed manifested occupational disease claims from the scope of the Act. Since the Act’s inception, most courts have held that late manifestation (over 300 weeks) deprived the claimant of a recovery under the Act, but did not remove the employer’s immunity from suit. In an opinion issued in November 2013, Justice Todd, writing for herself and four other justices, held that the statute’s exclusion of late-manifesting occupational diseases (after 300 weeks) does not leave claimants without a remedy; the statute simply removes the latent disease cases from the purview of the Act, and returns them to the vicissitudes of common law litigation. Tooey v. AK Steel Corp., 81 A.3d 851 (2013).

The Tooey decision has profound implications for how occupational disease litigation claims will be litigated.  For decades, Pennsylvania juries were treated to a faux spectacle that suggested that plaintiffs, with claimed occupational diseases, were the “victims,” of remote suppliers’ failure to warn, when in reality their diseases were largely or totally the result of employer and employee negligence. Not only will plaintiffs sue their employers, but third-party vendors will seek contribution or indemnification from negligent employers. Employers will assert comparative negligence and assumption of risk defenses, which will give the lie to the plaintiffs’ claims of inadequate warnings from the remote suppliers.  Just possibly, Tooey will let the truth come out.

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