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Court Reinforces Right to Sue at State Level for Workers Exposed to Workplace Toxins

OSHAOccupational safety means just that.  It means safety on the job from life-threatening hazards like asbestos exposure and other workplace toxins. So today I have good news for all of us who care about justice and occupational safety for America’s work force!

Last week, a federal court unanimously issued a ruling strengthening protections for Americans injured by hazardous substances, including asbestos exposure, on the job.

Specifically, the federal appeals court rejected a lawsuit filed by the American Tort Reform Association that challenged an important section of wording in OSHA’s revised hazard communication standard.  OSHA is the Occupational and Safety Hazard Administration, a division of the Department of Labor.

Both state and federal laws outline how companies are required to label harmful substances – including asbestos – in the workplace. Federal law usually trumps state law, but victims injured due to inadequate hazard labeling are still allowed to sue their employer for damages under state law.  The American Tort Reform Association, an industry-funded group, tried to overturn that and was unsuccessful.

I learned of this favorable ruling from Leah Nicholls, the Kazan-Budd attorney at Public Justice, a Washington D.C.-based public interest law firm.  I am proud to say that Kazan Law co-funds Leah Nicholls at Public Justice so she can work on difficult cases to protect people and the environment against powerful interests.

“The court’s opinion is great news for all of us who want to hold employers liable for injuries to employees,” Leah said.

“OSHA endorses the ability of employees injured because of inadequate labeling of hazardous substances to sue under state law to get damages for their injuries and, importantly, to prevent the same injuries from happening to other employees,” she added. “The fact that the D.C. Circuit held that OSHA’s endorsement stands will help persuade other courts that the existence of federal regulations does not prevent people from suing under state laws.”

The US Supreme Court has issued several rulings in recent years scaling back Americans’ ability to sue corporations for damages. The high court is also the most business-friendly since World War II, according to the New York Times business section. In that context especially, Leah said, “This is a heartening decision.”  I concur.

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