History of Asbestos Litigation

asbestos litigationOne of the things that I believe sets Kazan, McClain, Satterley, Lyons, Greenwood & Oberman apart is the fact that we have been pioneers in asbestos litigation. The modern history of asbestos litigation began on December 10, 1966, when the first asbestos product lawsuit since the 1920s was filed in Beaumont, Texas by attorney Ward Stephenson. His client, Claude Tomplait, had been diagnosed with asbestosis in July of that year. The defendants were eleven manufacturers of asbestos-containing insulation products, including Johns-Manville, Fibreboard and Owens Corning Fiberglas. The case proceeded to trial on May 12, 1969 and a week later the verdict was returned in favor of defendants.

In October 1969, Mr. Stephenson filed a case for one of Mr. Tomplait’s co-workers, Clarence Borel. Again, numerous asbestos manufacturers were named. However, this time the result was different. The jury returned a verdict for Mr. Borel in the amount of $79,436.24. The verdict was appealed and on September 7, 1973, Ward Stephenson died. Four days later, the Fifth Circuit Court upheld the award.

The legal battle on behalf of asbestos victims expanded to other parts of the United States. Cases were filed in many other jurisdictions starting in late 1973.

In 1974, I filed a precedent-setting civil lawsuit on behalf of Reba Rudkin, who developed asbestosis after working for 29 years at the Johns-Manville manufacturing plant in Pittsburg, California. Even though Mr. Rudkin worked for Johns-Manville and the company would normally be protected from such a lawsuit because workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for an employee suing an employer, I argued that Manville and its executives should not be shielded from fraud and conspiracy charges.

In January 1978, at a deposition taken during the course of discovery in this case, Wilbur Ruff, the Pittsburg plant manager in the 1960s, was asked if there had been “a policy in the company…not to talk to the employee about chest findings, findings that suggested asbestosis, pneumoconiosis or mesothelioma.” Ruff testified, “Yes, it was policy.” [Brodeur p.167-168] It was known as the “hush hush policy.” The evidence of fraud and conspiracy started to emerge.

During this period, numerous incriminating Johns-Manville documents were discovered that proved fraud and conspiracy. These included the personal records of Sumner Simpson, president of Raybestos Manhattan, who corresponded frequently with Vandiver Brown, General Counsel of Johns-Manville. The letters disclosed that these companies conspired to suppress knowledge about the hazards of asbestos as early as the 1930s.

Fast forward and now, more than 40 years later, asbestos litigation is still a battleground that remains fraught with continued evidence of corporate and insurance company fraud and conspiracy.

 

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