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PA Update – Superior Court Reverses Employer-Defendent Summary Judgment in Asbestos Case, Holding that Employers Owe a Heightened Duty of Care to their Employees

Shellenberger v. Krieder Farms, et al. (Pa. Super. 2023, No. 455 EDA 2022)

The instant case relates to an asbestos related personal injury action filed by an employee against his employer.  Summary judgement was filed by the employer stating that there was no evidence that they breached any duty to employee as they had no knowledge of the dangers of asbestos during the employee’s time working for employer.  Employee argued that employer owed them a duty to provide a safe work environment.

The court quoting Updyke v. BP Oil Co., stated it was held that “the duty of care owed to a business invitee” or business visitor is the highest duty owed to any entrant upon land.  The landowner mut protect an invitee not only against known dangers, but also against those which might be discover with reasonable care.

Employers are required to have knowledge of generally known scientific discoveries and inventions that are applicable to conditions of safety in his business.  Employers are required to inform themselves of current advances and of the progress in industries of the same nature as his own.  They are also under a duty to realize the limits of knowledge of those whom he employs, so that he can guard them against dangers they which they are required to know, but which they should know they may be unaware.

The Commonwealth has a well-established, long-standing public policy of recognizing that the responsibility for workplace safety rests with the employer.  Tooey v. AK Steel Corp., 81 A. 3d 851 (Pa. 2013).  The court stated that employers owe their employees a duty to protect them not only from known dangers but unknown dangers, but also from those which might be discovered with reasonable care.  They have a duty to their employees to create and maintain a safe work environment, conforming to the conduct of an ordinary, prudent person who has special knowledge as a person experienced in business.  Additionally, employers are required to have knowledge of generally known scientific discoveries, to take care to ascertain facts which would indicate danger to their employees, and take appropriate action is discovered.

The court ultimately held that the standard was not if the employer had actual knowledge that asbestos posed a danger to their employees, but whether the jury could have determined that they should have known of the dangers of asbestos.  Therefore, for purposes of summary judgment, it will be much more difficult for an employer to win on summary judgement.