Segal McCambridge Attorneys Win Appeal in Iowa Supreme Court in Toxic Tort Premises Liability Case


November 13, 2009

The Supreme Court of Iowa today affirmed summary judgment in favor of two property owners, finding that the companies owed no duty to warn the family members of independent contractors. The court's decision in Roger Van Fossen vs. MidAmerican Energy Company et al., reaffirms the principle that the primary responsibility for overseeing the safety of a contractor's employees rests with the contractor itself.

The plaintiff, Mr. Van Fossen, had been employed by Ebasco Services at the electrical generating facility owned by MidAmerican Energy as an iron rigger on construction projects at the premises from 1973 to 1981 and again as a maintenance iron worker for Klinger Construction from 1981 until 1997 at the same facility. During that time he allegedly was exposed to asbestos dust on the jobsite, and he routinely wore his work clothes home where they were laundered by his wife, Ann. Over time, Ann developed peritoneal mesothelioma, a cancer associated with exposure to certain types of asbestos, and ultimately died of the disease. Mr. Van Fossen filed suit against several defendants, including MidAmerican Energy and Interstate Power and Light, alleging negligence in their failure to have warned Ann Van Fossen of the dangers of asbestos exposure.

Lower courts issued summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that the property owners owed no duty to warn the family members of independent contractors. Mr. Van Fossen appealed to the Supreme Court of Iowa.

The Supreme Court upheld the lower courts' rulings, and declined to extend liability, reasoning that an employer often has little or no direct control over the work of the employees of independent contractors. "The contractors' knowledge and expertise places them in the best position," the court concluded, "to understand the nature of the work, the risks to which workers will be exposed in the course of performing the work, and the precautions best calculated to manage those risks." The court further concluded that the extension of the duty of reasonable care that the plaintiff sought in this case would represent "a dramatic expansion of liability...incompatible with public policy."

Jason Kennedy and Adam Jagadich of Segal McCambridge represented MidAmerican Energy.

To read the decision, click here.