Sometimes Common Sense Wins the Day: Interpreting the Law to Solve a Real Problem


A huge part of litigation is trying to convince others that your interpretation of the law is correct. An attorney may have to convince the other party’s attorney, a judge or an appeals court that his or her interpretation is the most valid one and should be accepted. This involves the interpretation of the language of court decisions, statutes or regulations.

An attorney can argue that what’s at issue should be interpreted very narrowly. An argument for a narrow interpretation would be: these are the words; this is what they plainly mean; there’s no need to be creative and go beyond the explicit language.

An attorney could also argue that what’s at issue should be interpreted broadly: we need to go beyond the words that are stated and look at what the judge or legislature intended to do when these words were written; if they intended to address a problem or sought a certain goal, that should guide the interpretation, not just what words were used.

The New Jersey Supreme Court in July very wisely decided to interpret a prior state Supreme Court decision broadly, rejecting the defendant’s narrow interpretation, and ruled that the decision meant more than what it explicitly stated, according to the National Law Review.

A woman alleging she was exposed to and harmed by beryllium had her Pennsylvania federal court case dismissed. Beryllium is a metal that’s stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum. A person exposed to it by inhaling it can suffer what’s essentially an allergic response, developing a debilitating lung disease called chronic beryllium disease (CBD) and sometimes later developing lung cancer, according to the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Brenda Schwartz’s boyfriend and his roommate worked for Accuratus Corporation. She spent time at their apartment and washed their work clothes, which could be covered with beryllium dust. She later married her boyfriend, developed CBD and sued the company because she claimed as a landowner it negligently exposed her to a known hazardous material, causing her harm (known as ‘take home toxic tort liability’).

The trial court dismissed her claim because of a 2006 New Jersey State Supreme court case in a similar situation that involved asbestos brought by a worker’s wife. The trial court stated that since Schwartz wasn’t exposed to the metal when she was married, she wasn’t a wife so was not entitled to legal protection. Schwartz appealed the dismissal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. They asked for an interpretation of the case by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

That court looked at the prior case and agreed it involved a spouse, but that didn’t mean legal protections for those living with someone bringing home toxic substances from work are limited to spouses.

The court interpreted the 2006 case broadly, not focusing on the relationship of the people involved, stating the premises owner’s duty of care was based on how foreseeable or predictable it would be that someone like Schwartz would be handling and laundering a person’s contaminated clothes, which the landowner allowed its employees to take home.

There was nothing in the earlier decision stating potential liability cannot go beyond a spouse, and the decision was not based on a definition of a “household” member, or a requirement of a biological or familial relationship. A court could impose on a defendant a duty of care to a non-employee based on whether toxic exposure was foreseeable and predictable.

Depending on the facts and law involved, an attorney may argue for a broad interpretation of the law in one case and a narrow interpretation in another. We do what we need to do, within legal and ethical limits, to zealously defend our clients’ rights and represent their legal interests.

If you or a loved one has been seriously injured due to exposure to a dangerous substance because of a negligent property owner in New Jersey, schedule a free consultation with our office by calling us at (973) 358-6134 or by using our online quick connect form. Statutes of limitations apply, so contact us as soon as possible so you can learn about your legal rights and take action to protect your interests.

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