A retired steamfitter who claims his asbestos-contaminated work clothes caused his wife's death can sue Exxon Mobil, owner of a refinery where he worked, New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The oil company should have known Eleanor Olivo was in danger from washing her husband's work clothes, the court said in a unanimous ruling.

"Exxon Mobil owed a duty to spouses handling the workers' unprotected work clothing based on the foreseeable risk of exposure from asbestos borne home on contaminated clothing," the court said.

Eleanor Olivo died in 2001 from a rare form of cancer associated with prolonged exposure to asbestos. Her husband is seeking unspecified damages.

Anthony Olivo worked as a steamfitter and welder from 1947 until he retired in 1984. The Woodbury resident worked for several contractors at various sites in New Jersey, among them Exxon Mobil's refinery in Paulsboro. At the refinery, Olivo worked around asbestos-laden pipe coverings and gaskets.

The company argued that it should not be held responsible for Eleanor Olivo's death because she had never been on company property and her husband was not an Exxon Mobile employee.

An attorney for Exxon Mobil did not immediately return calls for comment.