42 Years - A Professional Law Corporation - Helping Asbestos Victims Since 1974

Johns Manville

Asbestos Victim Wins a Landmark Case

asbestos victimAsbestos victim Robert Alan Speake was “in frail health and breathing with difficulty,” according to the December 1, 1981 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.   But he stood up for his day in court, a day that marked a major change in the tragic history of asbestos victims and the businesses and individuals who exploited their innocence for financial gain.

As ill as he was on that day, Speake stood up on behalf of not only himself but all asbestos victims. And standing with him there in Contra Costa County Superior Court on that day was me. I would go on to fight on behalf of asbestos victims for the next several decades – a fight I continue to this day. But on that day in 1981, we were breaking new legal ground.

I was helping to represent Speake in his lawsuit against the giant Johns-Manville Corp. family of companies which he blamed for his fatal illness.

Speake , 66 at the time, was an asbestos worker for 33 years at Johns-Manville’s Pittsburg plant. We maintained that the executives knew of the health hazards of working with asbestos as early as the 1930s but hid the information from their employees. Bob said they never told him anything and I believed him.

Speake, who had to take early retirement because of his declining health, was suffering from asbestosis, a disease of the lungs, caused by his work environment. Johns-Manville’s lawyers tried to blame the victim and claimed his illness was caused by smoking.

I didn’t buy that. The article quotes me as saying that Johns-Manville acted in “willful and conscious disregard” by never telling workers of the dangers.

“Bob Speake should have had the opportunity to say, I’m going to get out of here and get a safe job, before his health began to deteriorate,” I told the court.

I showed evidence revealing that the company had kept secret the results of X-rays and exams showing signs of asbestos-caused damage in Speake as early as the 1950s.

I sought not only lost pay for Speake, but also substantial punitive damages to make an example of Johns-Manville so others would be spared the fate that was Bob Speake’s.

We succeeded in making an example of Johns-Manville. Their name came to be synonymous with the scandal of asbestos exposure and callous disregard for human life. They went into bankruptcy several months later, right before our next group of mesothelioma lawsuits for their plant workers was set for trial. But we did not succeed in sparing others from Bob Speake’s fate. Greed never learns its lesson. And so we continue to fight on behalf of asbestos victims.

Landmark Case That Changed Asbestos Law

asbestos law

From San Francisco Chronicle July 4, 1980

Today as an asbestos victim, you can count on being able to sue those responsible.  If you are the survivor of a family member who died because of asbestos exposure, you also can count on being able to file a wrongful death suit.  The pioneering practice of asbestos law at Kazan Law helped make this possible.  We not only practice under existing asbestos litigation rules, we help create those rules.

When I first started my career as a personal injury attorney, asbestos law as we know it today did not exist. To commemorate Kazan Law’s 40th anniversary, we’ll take a look at one of my first cases against the Johns-Manville Company.  It was a landmark victory that changed asbestos law forever.

Reba Rudkin, the plaintiff in the case, had been dead for several months by the time the state Supreme Court made its landmark decision. Mr. Rudkin’s death was attributed to “lung cancer” at the time, caused by on-the-job asbestos exposure which also caused his asbestosis .

Mr. Rudkin had worked for 29 years at a now closed Johns-Manville plant in Pittsburg, CA where industrial products like asbestos cement boards and panels were made.

A San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article, aptly published on July 4 1980, a day after the court decision, notes:

According to Rudkin’s attorney, Steven Kazan, yesterday’s ruling was the first time a California court has permitted a worker to sue his employer for injury since 1917, except for minor cases of physical assault.

Yes, that ruling was a game changer.

In a 5 – 2 decision, the court said the alleged misconduct by Johns-Manville was flagrant enough to provide an exception to a state worker’s compensation law that had prevented workers from suing employers for work related diseases or injuries

Employers were immune then from injury lawsuits under the 1917 Worker’s Compensation Act because it said workers could only seek compensation through the labor department, not through injury lawsuits in the courts.

Using an approach that is now standard, we filed a civil lawsuit against Johns-Manville in 1974 (Rudkin v Johns Manville et al), arguing that the Worker’s Compensation Act should not shield the company and its executives from fraud and conspiracy charges.  With Mr. Rudkin suffering from the lung disease that would soon kill him, we sued Johns-Manville for fraud and conspiracy in inducing him to work in an environment they knew was dangerous.

In a deposition for the case, Johns-Manville’s former plant manager had testified that there was in fact a “hush hush” policy to suppress information about the health hazards of asbestos.

Justice Stanley Mosk, in the majority decision, ruled that a worker or his family could sue “for aggravation of the disease because of the employer’s fraudulent concealment.”

This established an exception to the workers compensation exclusive remedy rule, later codified in Section 3602(b)(2) of the California Labor Code. It also opened a pathway for hundreds of other sick and dying former employees  to seek justice from Johns-Manville and other big companies.

This case also determined that the family of a plaintiff who died during a pending court case had the right to continue the suit. This also was a very important ruling that has helped many families achieve justice and compensation from companies responsible for the death of their loved one.

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.

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.

Kazan Law Celebrates 40 Years of Fighting for Mesothelioma Victims

Kazan Law

Kazan Law in 1991. Partners Steven Kazan (seated) and David McClain (standing third from right) remain.


This week our firm Kazan Law, one of the top asbestos litigation firms in the US, celebrates its 40th year fighting for mesothelioma victims and winning precedent-setting verdicts.

To commemorate the occasion here’s a look back to how Kazan Law began.

Forty years ago, the workers at the Johns-Manville plant in Lompoc, California didn’t know why; they only knew that people were sick and dying.  A lot of them.  Colleagues they had worked with for many years.  So the labor union representative collected death certificates of those who had died in the last five years and wrote a letter to someone he thought could help them.  That someone was me.

The year was 1974. Telephones were attached to walls, a computer took up a whole room and companies that produced asbestos-containing products were getting away with murder.  Employees exposed to asbestos on the job were dying from asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma.

And in Oakland, California, 40 years ago, I had just hung out my shingle.  Kazan Law then was just me and a secretary. But I had all ready become known for having expertise in litigating complex medical and scientific issues in other kinds of cases, and had worked with a workers compensation attorney who was hired to get workers compensation benefits for some men who worked at the Pittsburg CA Johns Manville asbestos products plant.

Then, in 1974, shortly after going out on my own, I was asked to help by doing the civil law suits for those plant workers.  I won a precedent-setting suit for Reba Rudkin, who developed asbestosis after working for 29 years at Johns-Manville’s plant in Pittsburg, California. Following this case, I represented over one hundred asbestos-affected workers from Johns-Manville plants.

In 1982, I won a $150,000 verdict for Bob Speake, one of the workers from the Johns-Manville plant in Pittsburg in a test case trial ordered by the Superior Court in Contra Costa County, CA.  This case is regarded as a “threshold verdict” because it created the opportunity for punitive damage verdicts against Johns-Manville. Months later, just as we were getting ready to go to settlement conferences on a large group of those cases in advance of a fall 1982 trial of a group of these cases, Johns –Manville filed for bankruptcy court protection. I eventually had 393 cases pending against the company which we resolved with the Trust Fund set up after that bankruptcy.

Today Kazan Law is still headquartered in Oakland California. Kazan, McClain, Satterley  & Greenwood now has 22 attorneys, including me.  As Kazan Law celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, the firm continues to excel at pursuing justice for mesothelioma victims and others exposed to asbestos.  Kazan Law daily puts its 40 years of experience in pioneering asbestos lawsuits and setting precedents to work for its clients today.  An $11 million verdict was just announced last month in Kazan Law’s wrongful death suit on behalf of mesothelioma victim Gordon Bankhead’s wife and children.

I am proud that Kazan Law has remained at the forefront of asbestos litigation in California and nationally.  Since 1974, we have represented thousands of people – those suffering from mesothelioma and their families.  We treasure our reputation as pioneers in asbestos litigation who are among the most experienced mesothelioma lawyers in the United States.

As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, we recognize our history and its significance in asbestos litigation landmarks  and celebrate our current accomplishments as we face the future.

Canary in the Mine Trailer: Revealing Truths about the Canadian Asbestos Industry

Length: 2:07

“When workers complained they could see the fibers in the air, it was remedied by darkening the windows so the sunlight would not hit the fibers.”

Watch this 2-minute trailer of Canary in the Mine, a short documentary that reveals the personal and political ramifications of one of Canada’s most controversial industries: the mining and exportation of Chrysotile asbestos.

The documentary in its entirety will be released and sent to film festivals soon.

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