McCarthy v. Department of Social and Health Services
A state employee argued that she developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a result of constant exposure to tobacco smoke in the workplace. Unable to obtain workers’ compensation benefits, the employee sued the state for negligently failing to provide a smoke-free work environment, which cause her pulmonary disease. The state supreme court ruled that the employer is under a duty to provide a safe workplace, which includes a duty to provide a working environment reasonably free from tobacco smoke. The court sent the decision back to a lower court to determine (1) whether the employer knew or should have known of the harmful effects of tobacco smoke and (2) whether the state could have reasonably corrected the situation and failed to do so. The court noted that an employer is not required to provide a smoke-free environment for each employee no matter the cost. But, if the employer is aware of an individual employee’s particular sensitivity to tobacco smoke, it has a duty to take reasonable steps to accommodate the employee’s sensitivities. The court said that the employee must also show that her pulmonary disease was not an “occupational disease” under state workers compensation law in order to proceed with her negligence claim against the state.