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.