Posted on January 9, 2012 by Patrick Dennis
In the past few years, more than 25 multi-party cases have been filed against semiconductor manufacturers, alleging that employees working in “clean rooms” were exposed to chemicals, such as ethylene glycol ethers, which caused birth defects in the employees’ children. The majority of these cases have been filed in Delaware state court and seek direct recovery in tort for children plaintiffs, who allege that they were exposed to these chemicals through their employee-parents prior to conception or in utero. In addition to raising a number of environmental and causation issues, these cases present significant questions about the scope and extent of the duties employers in the non-medical industries have to unborn persons. They also raise important questions about whether such claims should be addressed through civil litigation, or whether they fall within the exclusive domain of workers’ compensation.
In a pivotal opinion, on September 30, 2011, Delaware Superior Court Judge Jan R. Jurden (who is presiding over more than a dozen clean room cases) dismissed a clean room case, Peters v. Texas Instruments. Applying Texas law (where the alleged exposures occurred), Judge Jurden found that the exclusivity provision of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act (which provides that workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for alleged workplace injuries) barred the child’s (and its parents’) civil claims against defendant Texas Instruments, because the child plaintiff’s claims were derivative of and dependent on the parent-employee’s. Id. The court also found that, to the extent that the plaintiffs sought to hold Texas Instruments liable for acts predating the child’s conception, Texas courts have not recognized preconception tort liability and it would be improper for Delaware courts to do so when applying Texas law, particularly because expansion of a legal duty falls within the realm reserved to the legislative, as opposed to judicial, branches. It is noted that the Plaintiffs are seeking reconsideration in Peters, but it will be a difficult decision to change from a legal perspective.
The Peters decision may be the first of many dismissals in the series of clean room birth defects cases. Peters is also an important decision in the developing body of transgenerational tort law and birth defects cases generally. While a handful of courts have recognized that medical professionals can be liable to individuals for their actions prior to that person’s birth, numerous courts have recognized that imposing duties to unborn children beyond a very narrow set of circumstances would not only prove unworkable, but would also constitute an improper judicial interference in a realm reserved for the legislative branch. An example is the Texas Appellate Court decision in Chenault v. Huie. Further, employers spend millions on workers’ compensation every year. One of the benefits that workers’ compensation schemes offer to employers is the promise of exclusive and limited liability: an employee’s recovery for work-related injuries is limited to the amount fixed by the governing workers’ compensation scheme and the employer will not be liable in tort, unless the injury was intentionally caused. If parent-employees could bring lawsuits on behalf of their minor children for birth defects allegedly caused by preconception or in utero exposures in the course of their employment, it would create a significant loophole in workers’ compensation schemes and disrupt the delicate balance state legislatures have struck between employer and employee interests in the workers’ compensation arena.