Patton v. Sears Roebuck – NC Appeals Court Weighs Asbestos Work Injury Case

Workers who have suffered injury as a result of asbestos exposure on the job are likely to be facing serious health consequences and do have several avenues for compensation.
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That may involve product liability litigation against the makers of the dangerous products, but in some cases it can also involve claims for workers’ compensation. While workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for work-related claims, that only pertains to liability of an employer. Third party claims (such as those against manufacturers of dangerous products) are not barred by this rule.

Recently, the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed an award of worker’s compensation death benefits to survivors of a worker who died of illness caused by decades-old work-related exposure to the deadly asbestos fibers.

In Patton v. Sears Roebuck, decedent had already settled a prior claim for asbestosis against defendants back in 2003. However, when he died, his son, the administrator of his estate initiated a separate action based on the death, which was directly related to the work-acquired illness.

According to court records, the evidence showed decedent worked for defendant employer from the late 1950s until the mid-1990s as a service technician. In that time, he developed expertise in the repair, installation and maintenance of home heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units. His co-worker later testified on his behalf in front of the North Carolina Industrial Commission, indicating he and decedent repaired furnaces together on a near-daily basis. Those furnaces, the co-worker testified, included asbestos rope gaskets, asbestos cement and asbestos tape.

Another retired worker of the same employer testified he often went on service calls with decedent, and usually worked on furnaces, primarily in the wintertime.

Decedent’s treating physician testified his patient suffered from a host of lung problems, including shortness of breath, and heart issues. Patient was ultimately diagnosed with asbestosis, and when he signed his death certificate, physician listed cause of death as asbestosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.

A pulmonologist also testified decedent had clear radiographical and pathological evidence of asbestosis.

Defendants did not contend decedent wasn’t exposed to asbestos at work or deny he had asbestosis. Instead, the company argued decedent’s estate wasn’t entitled to collect compensation for the disease because his level of exposure wasn’t great enough for him to maintain a claim for benefits, and further it wasn’t clear whether his exposure caused or significantly contributed to his death.

Appellate court, however, affirmed the award of workers’ compensation death benefits to deceased worker’s estate.

In order for work-related illness from silica or asbestos to be compensable, the commission requires worker to have been exposed to the substances for 30 working days within a consecutive seven-month time frame in order for exposure to be deemed injurious. Defendants argued the only evidence of this was presented by a single co-worker. Defendants, meanwhile, argued the exposure occurred twice weekly over the course of six months – not enough to meet the criteria.

Appellate court rejected this argument, finding there were numerous pieces of evidence tending to indicate worker’s exposure fit the necessary criteria, and these findings of facts were supported by competent evidence on record.

Decedent’s estate will retain an award for 400 weeks of workers’ compensation benefits.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Patton v. Sears Roebuck, Feb. 17, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries
Report: Nurses at High Risk of Becoming Patients Due to Work Injury, Feb. 20, 2015, Asheville Work Injury Lawyer Blog

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