Last month, a Pennsylvania appeals court affirmed the ruling of the lower court that a former teacher who got mesothelioma and her husband can sue the public school district where she alleges having been exposed to asbestos in the classroom. The issue in the case was the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity - the idea that certain governmental officials, employees or units are immune from suit by virtue of being part of a sovereign government.
Sovereign or Governmental Immunity
Sovereign immunity, also called governmental immunity, is a difficult and complicated legal concept that is heavily dependent on the law of the jurisdiction involved. This case interpreted a complex Pennsylvania state statute.
Governmental immunity issues can come up in asbestos injury claims because asbestos was regularly used in government buildings on the local, state and federal levels, potentially exposing employees, the public and contractors to asbestos fibers during construction, renovation, repair or demolition.
The Pennsylvania Lawsuit
The plaintiff in this case and her husband sued many defendants: the school district and around 40 business entities that had been involved with asbestos products. The district asked to be dismissed from the suit based on sovereign immunity because it is a governmental entity. The trial court denied the request and the ruling was affirmed on appeal, keeping the school district in the lawsuit.
The teacher alleged that when she taught for the district in 1958 and 1959 there was an asbestos-covered pipe that released contaminated dust in her classroom, that asbestos was also released when tiles were repaired and that asbestos-covered pipes gave off dust throughout the school building.
The appellate judge wrote that the district had a duty to "create reasonably safe conditions of employment" and that the plaintiffs had presented enough evidence to show that dangerous conditions at school may have contributed to the mesothelioma that caused her death.
The court said that the local government agency could be liable for asbestos-dust exposure if that situation falls within one of eight possible exceptions to governmental immunity provided by state statute. The judge said that two exceptions may apply: the real property and the utility service facilities exceptions, allowing the plaintiffs to sue the district for its negligent care of its property that could have "substantially contributed" to the teacher's death.
Anyone with questions about governmental liability for asbestos harm should speak with an experienced asbestos lawyer.