Boynton v. Kennecott Utah Copper, LLC

500 P.3d 847 (2021), 2021 UT 67

Quick Summary

Larry Boynton (plaintiff) sued Kennecott Utah Copper, LLC, PacifiCorp, and ConocoPhillips Company (defendants) following his wife’s death from mesothelioma attributed to take-home asbestos exposure. Larry claimed that his work at the defendants’ job sites led to him carrying home asbestos fibers on his clothing.

The legal dispute centered on whether these job site operators had a duty to prevent such exposure.

The Supreme Court of Utah concluded that the operators did owe a duty of care and that contractual provisions could indicate retained control over contractors’ work related to the handling of asbestos.

Facts of the Case

Larry Boynton (plaintiff) filed a lawsuit following the death of his wife, Barbara Boynton, due to mesothelioma, a disease linked to asbestos exposure. Larry worked at various job sites where he was exposed to asbestos during the 1960s and 1970s.

He claimed that Barbara’s illness was caused by asbestos fibers he inadvertently brought home from his work sites. During his employment at Kennecott Utah Copper, LLC’s (defendant) smelter, Larry was in close proximity to activities that released asbestos dust, which he alleges was carried home on his clothing.

Similarly, while working as an electrician for independent contractors at PacifiCorp (defendant) and ConocoPhillips Company’s (defendant) premises, Larry was again exposed to asbestos dust from nearby work activities.

The core of the dispute revolves around whether these job site operators had a duty to prevent this ‘take-home’ asbestos exposure that ultimately led to Barbara’s death.

The legal proceedings aim to establish if there was negligence on the part of the job site operators in failing to warn or protect against the risks of asbestos exposure, not only to their employees but also to individuals like Barbara who never set foot on the job sites.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Larry Boynton filed suit against Kennecott, PacifiCorp, and Conoco for strict premises liability and negligence related to take-home asbestos exposure.
  2. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of PacifiCorp and Conoco, determining they had no duty to Barbara Boynton.
  3. The district court denied Kennecott’s motion for summary judgment, finding disputed facts regarding their duty.
  4. Larry Boynton appealed the summary judgment decisions to the Supreme Court of Utah.

I.R.A.C. Format

Issue

  • Whether job site operators owe a duty of care to workers’ co-habitants with respect to take-home exposure to asbestos.
  • Whether a premises operator retains control over a contractor, thereby assuming liability for the contractor’s actions.

Rule of Law

Job site operators owe a duty of care to prevent foreseeable risks of harm, including take-home exposure to asbestos, when they engage in affirmative acts that introduce asbestos into the workplace. A premises operator may retain control over a contractor when contractual provisions indicate sufficient control over injury-causing activities.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court of Utah reversed the lower court’s decision for PacifiCorp and Conoco and affirmed the denial of summary judgment for Kennecott. The court reasoned that premises operators took affirmative actions by introducing asbestos into the workplace and by potentially retaining control over contractors through contractual provisions.

These actions created foreseeable risks of harm not only to employees but also to their co-habitants. The court also considered whether public policy supports imposing a duty and concluded that premises operators are better positioned to prevent asbestos-related harm due to their control over workplace conditions and knowledge about asbestos dangers.

Regarding retained control, the court emphasized that contract stipulations regarding the use of specific materials like asbestos and detailed work methods can contribute to establishing that a premises operator retained control over its contractor.

Thus, factual issues existed as to whether PacifiCorp retained such control through its contract with Jelco-Jacobsen.

Conclusion

The court held that premises operators have a duty to exercise reasonable care in preventing take-home asbestos exposure and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Key Takeaways

  1. Premises operators owe a duty of care with respect to take-home asbestos exposure when they engage in affirmative acts introducing asbestos into the workplace.
  2. The foreseeability of harm plays a significant role in establishing a duty of care.
  3. A premises operator may retain control over an independent contractor if contractual provisions sufficiently dictate injury-causing activities or methods of work.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes a duty of care in a workplace environment?

A duty of care in a workplace arises when an employer undertakes actions that could foreseeably harm others, including workers or third parties. Employers must act reasonably to prevent foreseeable risks to ensure safety.

  • For example: A factory storing hazardous chemicals must implement safety protocols to prevent leaks that could harm both employees and neighboring residents.

How can a company's knowledge of specific risks impact their legal obligations?

A company’s awareness of potential risks increases their obligation to take precautions to prevent harm. Failure to act on this knowledge could result in liability for any resulting injuries.

  • For example: A manufacturer aware of the flammability of a product has an increased duty to provide fire safety measures and adequate warning labels.

What factors determine if a contractor retains control over work conditions on a premises?

Determining if a contractor retains control involves examining contractual agreements, the level of oversight provided, and whether the contractor dictates methods and materials for the job undertaken.

  • For example: When a company hires an independent cleaning service but requires them to follow specific cleaning procedures and use company-supplied solvents, the company may be seen as retaining control over work conditions.

References

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