Asbestos 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.