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Talking With Dianna Lyons, A Fearless Ally in Asbestos Litigation

Dianna Lyons

Dianna Lyons

Here at Kazan Law, one of the top asbestos litigation law firms in the nation, all of our attorneys excel at advocating for victims of asbestos exposure and their families. But in the 40 years that we have been practicing asbestos litigation, one of the best attorneys I’ve had working here was Dianna Lyons.

So for today’s Throwback Thursday post commemorating Kazan Law’s 40th Anniversary, I spoke with Dianna, who retired from Kazan Law in December.

Unlike most attorneys, Dianna Lyons came from a family of California migrant farm workers. This background gave her a powerful connection to our clients.  To all of us who work so vigorously to get justice for asbestos victims, our clients become almost like family. That was certainly true for Dianna, and that gave her an intensity and focus we all admired.

“Every client I ever represented for Kazan Law was a salt-of-the-earth type of person. Working long hours on their cases in a race with the Grim Reaper, I’d get to know them all really well.  And I’d realize that had we met under different circumstances, we would have been friends.  I’d look at them and think this guy went to work to make a living, not to die, and not to kill his wife or his kids.  People who made and sold the asbestos materials knew of the dangers of asbestos exposure and just gambled with someone else’s life,” reflects Dianna.

When Dianna joined us in 1992, she had been working for the United Farm Workers, the grassroots organization started by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez to help protect the safety and basic rights of farm workers.  She had been with the UFW since its founding in 1966 during the era of the famous grape boycott.

Dianna had worked her way through Modesto Junior College and Cal State Stanislaus milking 150 cows twice a day. She told me she switched to working nights for an insurance company to put herself through law school at UC Davis.

“It paid less but I didn’t get kicked,” she quipped.

During her 22 years here, Dianna Lyons started our appellate and motion department. She also never let being a woman in a male-dominated field get in her way.

“In my family, what mattered was how fast you were at picking fruit in the fields. Not whether you were a male or female. So I never had a mindset with gender boundaries.”

Dianna said that one major difference from when she started at Kazan Law happened when the companies that made the most obvious sources of asbestos exposure such as pipe covering and block insulation began to shield themselves from asbestos litigation by declaring bankruptcy.  Asbestos litigation work became more challenging because we had to find the less obvious asbestos exposures from such products as gaskets, valve packing and vehicle brakes that contributed to causing our client’s usually terminal disease.

“We couldn’t sue the pipe covering manufacturer because they’d gone bankrupt, so we had to go after the companies that made the gaskets, packing, brakes and other construction materials,” she recalled.

“In a case that Frank Fernandez and I tried about 14 years ago, the client had worked for Johns-Manville. They went bankrupt and sold the plant. Our client made plastic pipe but to get to his job, he had to walk through the part of the plant where they made asbestos cement pipe.  That is where the asbestos exposure came from. We got a $20 million verdict,” she said.

“One thing that always remained the same is the dedication and zeal at our firm. I liked that we always did quality work.  Sure, it involved a lot of 16 hour days seven days a week.  But there was never a dull moment. There is something about knowing you are doing a righteous job for a really good human being that gives you energy,” Dianna said.

General Motors, Source of Thousands of Asbestos Claims, In the Hot Seat Again

asbestos claimsGeneral Motors, a company responsible for many asbestos claims, is in the news again. And unfortunately, once again it is bad news. This time the issue is about a faulty ignition switch that has caused car crashes and deaths and the matter has become one for Congressional hearings.

But only several years ago, it was asbestos claims that were putting GM on the hot seat. This once successful American car company had been named in thousands of asbestos injury lawsuits because it produced and bought parts for its cars that contained asbestos.

The majority of asbestos claims filed against GM stemmed from of asbestos-containing brake linings and clutch facings. People who worked as auto mechanics developed mesothelioma because they had been exposed to asbestos while grinding, repairing and removing friction products such as brakes and clutches.

Thousands of people developed asbestos-related illnesses as a result of GM. By 2009, the company was liable for an estimated $636 million in asbestos claims, and the already struggling automaker filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

Following the bankruptcy reorganization in 2009, GM’s debts were transferred to Motors Liquidation Company. This included all present and future asbestos liability claims. The Motors Liquidation Company Asbestos PI Trust officially opened on April 30, 2012 to settle any present and future asbestos lawsuits paying only pennies on the dollar.

GM’s new CEO Mary Barra emphasized in her Congressional testimony that the “new GM” is not the “old GM”. But in a statement seized upon by the media, she conceded that the new GM has a “civic and moral responsibility” towards those harmed, even if it shed some legal responsibility in the bankruptcy.

Does this extend to their asbestos victims? It should. Why is a flawed switch different from a flawed brake? The end result of both is death and bereaved families.

GM escaped all liability for asbestos claims for its older cars and prior acts in the bankruptcy though it did keep a bit of liability for ‘normal’ car defects that could cause accidents. Kudos to the new CEO for recognizing the company’s moral responsibilities. We hope that extends to those who serviced GM cars for decades and died of mesothelioma or brought mesothelioma home to their wives and kids who got sick and died.

We hope she meant what she said but only time will tell.

How a Disreputable Firm Almost Hurt Every Local Asbestos Case

asbestos case

When our office takes on an asbestos case, we do so with utmost integrity and only after intensive scrutiny to make sure that the asbestos case has complete validity before we bring it forward.  Our ability to win cases and achieve substantial judgments or settlements for our clients depends not only on the way we prepare to meet our burden of proof in each asbestos case but also on our reputation. We want the opposing lawyers to know from the outset that if Kazan Law is on an asbestos case, it must have merit.

But because of the substantial amounts of money involved, the asbestos litigation field can be the target of hucksters and charlatans. Just like the proverbial bad apple that spoils the whole barrel, there is always the concern that a disreputable firm can tarnish all of us and hurt every asbestos case.

For this week’s post to commemorate Kazan Law’s 40th anniversary, we turn to a time just about ten years ago when a Texas law firm suddenly set up shop in San Francisco and just as suddenly closed shop l0 months later. And no longer exists according to a Google search. They came here to try to drum up business for silicosis lawsuits.  Silicosis is a lung disease that is caused by inhaling tiny bits of silica. Silica is a common mineral that is part of sand, rock and mineral ores like quartz.  Certain forms of it can cause serious lung disease and even increase the risk for developing lung cancer.

The problem was there wasn’t any silicosis here. That didn’t stop them. They blanketed the region with newspaper ads and mass mailings offering free screenings, as reported in by the legal newspaper The Recorder.

They filed about 1,000 lawsuits using a doctor who made diagnoses without personally examining patients or checking their work histories. They were out of control and the courts were not amused. Neither were the attorneys like us that take every lung disease case very seriously.

I was interviewed about it for The Recorder’s article. Here’s an excerpt:

 Steven Kazan, one of the country’s top asbestos lawyers, said they (Kazan Law) aren’t bringing silicosis suits and even questions their validity.

“The whole thing is somewhere between shameless and shameful,” said Kazan. “I don’t know of pulmonary doctors around here who really have seen silicosis cases.”

As usual, I got the last word in.  Or at least that’s how the reporter chose to end the story.

“They did a whole blanket mailing to Piedmont (a small affluent city of 10,000 in the middle of Oakland).  There’s not a whole lot of sandblasters who retired and moved to Piedmont,” said Kazan. “So it’s kind of ridiculous.”

And indeed, it was.

New Troubles At Cal/OSHA Could Increase Worker Asbestos Exposure

asbestos exposureA mesothelioma diagnosis means asbestos exposure occurred.  Probably not just once but many times. The asbestos exposure most likely occurred on the job because business interests were considered more important than the safety of workers and their families. In our most recent “Throwback Thursday” post commemorating Kazan Law’s 40th anniversary, we revisited a time in the 1980s when big business interests orchestrated the shutdown of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH), better known as Cal/OSHA. That meant there would be no trained inspectors safeguarding workers against dangers like asbestos exposure.

Our story had a happy ending.  A group of us got together to form a group called WorkSafe California that succeeded in helping to get Cal/OSHA back up and running. But as the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

No sooner was that anniversary post up on our website when I received a disturbing email from Fran Schreiberg, a labor attorney who was part of the group that helped restore Cal/OSHA with me about 30 years ago and started working at Kazan Law doing pro bono work in this area in 1991.

“A whistleblower complaint charging the Department of Industrial Relations with misuse of state and federal funds designated for Cal/OSHA, the state workplace health and safety agency, was filed with the California State Auditor on Tuesday, April 1st by a 20-year veteran of the agency who retired in January 2014,” it said.

The whistleblower complaint contains 16 items describing improper, and possibly illegal, use of DOSH funds by DIR in three key areas ­- budget and funding, real estate and personnel.

“This is terrible,” Fran Schreiberg said to me when she briefed me on this new development. “This means that funds intended to protect workers from asbestos exposure were used for other things.”

The lack of resources, caused by DIR’s misuse and mismanagement of Cal/OSHA funds, means that there are fewer compliance officers available to conduct on-site inspections, fewer inspections of high hazard workplaces where many low-wage and vulnerable workers are employed, fewer consultants to assist small employers, and fewer resources to develop new regulations to protect the health and safety of California¹s workers.

We hope that this misuse of funds is thoroughly investigated and halts this latest attempt to weaken protection for workers from hazards like asbestos exposure.

Kazan Law’s 1988 Victory: Proposition 97 and the Restoration of Cal/OSHA

Cal/OSHA

A younger Barack Obama shakes hands with Kazan Law’s Fran Schreiberg

At Kazan Law, most of our clients who are suffering from the devastating effects of asbestos exposure were hard-working trusting people all their lives.  That is until mesothelioma or other illnesses caused by asbestos exposure deprived them of their ability to work. All because an employer or parts manufacturer exploited their work ethic and loyalty.

My advocacy work on behalf of these workers and their families, some of who are also suffering from asbestos exposure, has made me very committed to the rights to protection of working people. For today’s “Throwback Thursday” post commemorating Kazan Law’s 40th anniversary, I am going to tell you about a special time in 1988 when we really had to stand up for those rights.

I was appalled when in 1987 California Governor George Deukmejian, in apparent cooperation with big business interests closed California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (DOSH or Cal/OSHA).

Workers have a right to a safe place to work.   They should be able to work without risk of workplace injuries, illnesses and death. Clearly Gov. Deukmejian didn’t think so.

In 1983 Deukmejian fired 83 staff members of Cal/OSHA and the following year he ordered a hiring freeze. During his first term in office work-related injuries increased more than 20% as Cal/OSHA’s on-site inspections decreased by 74%.  Then after four years of weakening California’s worker safety, he dismantled Cal/OSHA. Not coincidentally, Deukmejian had received $8 million in political contributions for his reelection campaign from big business. It was no surprise when he shut Cal/OSHA’s doors, returning the program to Federal OSHA despite the knowledge that the federal government’s worker safety program was not nearly as effective as the California program.

California’s outraged attorney general John Van de Kamp was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “What the governor is proposing is nothing less than a lethal game of buck-passing. It sends a message of indifference bordering on contempt to California’s working men and women.”

I thought so too.  And I wasn’t the only one. I volunteered on behalf of Kazan Law to represent the California Trial Lawyers Association (now known as Consumer Attorneys of California) on a coalition to restore Cal/OSHA.

We called ourselves WORKSAFE! .  Representing the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California was a very dedicated labor attorney named Frances Schreiberg. The coalition worked with the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO and the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California to draft an initiative that became Prop 97.  It called for the legislature to restore Cal/OSHA program with  a budget sufficient to minimize the risk to workers from industrial injuries, illnesses and exposure to toxic substances including exposure to asbestos. It was a tough fight but we succeeded. Cal/OSHA was restored. I hired Fran Schreiberg as a pro bono counsel to advocate for worker safety on a policy level.  Worksafe continues to advocate for worker safety and Fran, as a founding mother, still works closely with the organization.

 

Deadline Nears For 2014 Broussard Law School Scholarship Applications

Broussard Law School Scholarship

Justice Allen E. Broussard

As asbestos litigation attorneys, we at Kazan Law excel at what we do and it is always exhilarating when we are able to give back to our clients some of the hopes and dreams that mesothelioma took from them.  But we also like giving back in ways that help the hopes and dreams of the communities around us. That includes the Oakland community where our offices are located and the legal community we are so proud to be a part of.

One of the ways we do that makes a meaningful contribution to both of these wonderful communities. That is our foundation’s support for The Allen E. Broussard Scholarship Fund which was established in 1996 after the death of California Supreme Court Associate Justice Allen E. Broussard, and was incorporated as the Allen E. Broussard Scholarship Foundation in 1999. The goal of the foundation is to continue Justice Broussard’s work in the minority community by assisting law students from underrepresented backgrounds in their pursuit of a career in the legal profession.

Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1929, Allen E. Broussard came to the Bay Area with his family as a teenager. He began his years of community service at age 16 while attending San Francisco City College. Here he started his lifelong efforts to ensure equal rights for African Americans in the workforce. Justice Broussard was instrumental in getting the first African Americans hired as a high school teacher and police officer in San Francisco.

Justice Broussard worked diligently to expand opportunities within the legal profession. One of his goals was the diversification of the profession; making sure all minorities are given the opportunity to rise and “take a place at the table,” as he was fond of saying.

Having served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Allen E. Broussard Law School Scholarship Foundation for over a decade, I am honored each year to present three or more academically qualified students from economically challenged backgrounds with a $5,000 scholarship. This award is the largest private scholarship award for law students attending California Bay Area law schools. Four students received the award last year.

The deadline for applying for the 2014 scholarships is this month. Email info@broussard-scholarship.org or call (415) 983-7680 for more information.

Appellate Court Decides in Favor of Victim in Ford Mesothelioma Case

mesothelioma caseSometimes even in the tragic world of a mesothelioma case, there is reason to celebrate.  At Kazan Law that is what keeps us doing what we do.  When we snatch victory from the jaws of defeat for our clients through tenacious asbestos litigation and are able to get justice in a mesothelioma case, it’s a good day.

In our latest victory, we achieved justice for not only the specific mesothelioma case we were representing but for all mesothelioma cases.  That is because the court upheld two important principles in asbestos law:

  1. That the average working person cannot be expected to have the same level of scientific knowledge about the long term consequences of asbestos exposure that the decision-makers at a large company should have.
  2. That a company cannot be let off the hook for causing injury to someone in one state because the laws of the state where the company has its headquarters are different.

These are important concepts. We are very proud of our work in this case well handled by Ted Pelletier and our appellate and motions team, and of the brilliant appellate court that protected the rights of all citizens.

Specifically, a California appellate court upheld a $1.5 million judgment for our client Patrick Scott and his family. They also decided that the Scotts should be allowed to pursue punitive damages which the trial court had said they couldn’t do.

Scott, a former service-station owner, was exposed to asbestos from car parts made by Ford Motor Company since the 1960s.  In a published opinion in Scott v. Ford Motor Co., No. A137975, Division One of the First Appellate District first rejected Ford’s argument that Scott was a “sophisticated user” who should have known the dangers of Ford’s products.  Because Ford insisted during the trial that those dangers were not scientifically established when Scott was exposed, the jury rejected Ford’s contradictory claim that he was supposed to know all about those very dangers.  The opinion notes that there are different standards for what Scott as owner of a “local automotive business,” was expected to know compared to what Ford, a “large international business directly involved in the manufacture of the products” should have known.

The opinion also reinstates the Scotts’ claim for punitive damages, which the lower court had rejected because the law in Michigan, where Ford is headquartered, disallows punitive damages.  Every part of this case occurred in California: Ford’s sale of its products; Scott’s exposures, his disease diagnosis and treatment.  So the appeals court decided California law is what matters here.  Otherwise Ford would get a free pass or as they put it “a nationwide shield from punitive damage liability,” to sell defective products in California and every other state without fear of punishment.  That would be a nightmare not just for mesothelioma cases but for every case that could result from driving a car with parts that malfunctioned.

The Careful Investigation Required For Your Mesothelioma Case

mesothelioma caseIn theory, a law firm should do considerable investigation before it tells a client that it can take on a mesothelioma case. But there are some law firms that just want to get people to sign up with them. Then they’ll turn around and broker that case to someone else, because they have no real intention of doing any actual work involved in a mesothelioma case.

These businesses assume that if you have a mesothelioma diagnosis, there will be money in it for them from somewhere. Their attitude is, “We don’t care because we are going to get a third or half of the fees for no work.”

We do things differently at Kazan Law. Once a client calls to consult with me about a mesothelioma case it establishes a confidential attorney client relationship, whether or not they hire me. I firmly believe that I am ethically obligated to give them good advice and protect their best interests and their confidences.

We may know in the first phone conversation that someone has enough provable asbestos exposure for a mesothelioma case and who the likely culprits are. There are other mesothelioma cases that require extensive investigation before I can tell a client the case has value.

Here are five questions we consider:

1.       Is the mesothelioma diagnosis accurate? Nowadays it usually is since it is almost always based on a pathology report after a biopsy, and even a community hospital pathology department uses standard lab tests and often gets outside consultation.

2.       Can we show that there was asbestos exposure? Almost all the time we can. Sometimes people don’t remember where they were exposed to asbestos. I had a mesothelioma case involving an orthopedic surgeon who didn’t have a clue. After a couple hours of detailed interview, he remembered that one summer during college he worked at an oil refinery doing clean-up.

3.       Can we identify where and when the asbestos exposure took place, and figure out whose asbestos product it was? We explore a client’s work history and exposure history to see what evidence there is. A client might say, “My dad worked at the shipyard.” Or “I did drywall work.”

4.       Whose asbestos fiber was it? Not just who made the products that were used at that time and place, but how did the asbestos get there? Anyone in the chain of production and distribution from the mining company who dug up the asbestos fiber to the product manufacturer to the wholesaler to the local hardware store has liability for the asbestos product, and thus for the exposure.

5.        Is the case worth doing? That is something we will decide before we commit to doing it. The deciding factor is whether we will be able to get enough money from anyone for you to justify your time and energy. That requires some effort to determine.

Promising someone the moon and the stars and not being able to deliver is not a good thing, and the last thing a mesothelioma patient needs is to waste time and energy on a lawsuit with attorneys who can’t deliver what they promise, when time and energy are the patient’s most limited and precious resource. At Kazan Law, we are honest and conservative. We tell prospective clients the truth about what a case will take out of them, and what it will likely produce for them and the family. We aim to exceed our clients’ expectations. No one’s ever gotten mad at me for doing better than I told them we would.

Kazan Law Staff Runs For Justice

Kazan Law Run for Justice team members

Kazan Law staff all work very hard for our clients with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.  As you might guess, asbestos litigation is very demanding stressful work but work we firmly believe in. And to keep doing it as best we can, it is good for all of us to let off steam now and then.  And it is great for the teamwork of the firm when Kazan Law staff can do something fun all together.  It is especially wonderful when we can do fun activities that also benefit a good cause.

That’s exactly what some Kazan Law staff did recently when we had our very own Run for Justice Team participating in the 5th annual Oakland Running Festival. The Oakland Running Festival raises much-needed funds for the local community. In its first four years, according to official Running Festival information, it has generated an estimated $12 million in economic activity for the city of Oakland and $1 million for local charities.

As the Oakland Running Festival marathon began Sunday morning, according to a local newspaper report, the sun was just starting to come up and the air was cool — welcome weather for the 1,099 marathon runners who attempted the 26.2-mile course around the city.

Nearly 10,000 runners showed up to participate in the marathon, half-marathon, 5K or kids’ races. And among that happy throng of 10,000 was our own group of Kazan staff runners.  Those who crossed the finish line include:

5K: Adrian Elfenbaum (Settlement Administrator)

Half-Marathon: Gordon Greenwood (Partner), Caitlin McEldrew (Paralegal), Jazmin Solorzano (Legal Assistant)

Marathon Relay: Sophie Noero (WorkSafe employee), Matt Thiel (Associate), Tara Runyan (IT Director), Ny Kundidzora (Paralegal)

Marathon: Michael Stewart (Associate), Justin Bosl (Partner)

“Congratulations to everyone that came out yesterday to Run for Justice at the Oakland Running Festival. As always, it was a great event and it was great to see some Kazan t-shirts out there!”  Kazan Law partner and marathon race participant Justin Bosl said in an email to the staff.

“And thank you to everyone who volunteered for the event. Finally, thanks to anyone who came out to cheer us on.”

1976 News Clip Highlights 1st Wave of Asbestos Lawsuits in the Bay Area

 

asbestos lawsuits

If you were playing a trivia game and were asked, “What company is the one most associated with asbestos lawsuits?” The answer of course, would be Johns Manville.

But there was a time not too long ago when not many people aside from employees and shareholders knew the name Johns Manville.  And asbestos lawsuits were almost unheard of.  Workers did not think they would ever stand a chance of prevailing against a big company and their attorneys if they even got their asbestos lawsuits to court.  So big companies could use workers up like Kleenex and outright lie to them about the lethal health consequences of asbestos exposure.

Then in the 1970s, things began to change.  Due in part to the social movements of the late 1960s like the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Environmental Movement, people began to feel they were empowered and had a voice. The first big wave of asbestos lawsuits began to emerge.

As we commemorate Kazan Law’s 40th anniversary this month, I came across a 1976 clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle about that first wave of asbestos lawsuits stemming from the Johns Manville plant in nearby Pittsburg, CA.  This was one of the first media stories about this landmark development.  I am proud to have been chosen as a young attorney to be on that case and interviewed for the article.

Workers at the Johns Manville plant were suing a former company physician on the grounds that he deliberately withheld information from the workers that they had asbestosis.   Here’s what I said to the reporter:

“We contend that the doctor was negligent and the company submitted the men to deliberate exposure,” said attorney Steven Kazan.”

“They went for years without telling the guys they had lung problems developing so they could be treated and their exposure stopped,” Kazan said bitterly.

This was my first brush with asbestos lawsuits, an area of law that was to become my life’s work. I recall feeling outraged at the time that anyone would violate all standards of human decency by causing the deaths of other humans for profit.  I filed my first Johns Manville case in 1974 and now 40 years later, I still feel the same way.

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