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North Carolina Asbestos Law Blog

Ex-Navy employee awarded $17 million in asbestos death case

In a case that will have echoes in the shipyards in North Carolina and elsewhere on the east coast, a jury in Arizona awarded $17 million to the family of a former civilian employee of the United States Navy who alleged that he suffered fatal asbestos exposure while he worked in the Norfolk Naval Yard in Virginia.

The decedent worked as a machinist in the shipyard from 1959 to 1966. His primary job was repairing and maintaining equipment on naval ships. His duties regularly included the removal of gaskets that were manufactured using asbestos fibers and repacking valve gaskets that contained asbestos fibers. The decedent and his wife had moved to Lake Havasu City after he retired from a 37-year career working for the Navy. The decedent died less than one year after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, an especially virulent form of lung cancer that is almost exclusively caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers.

Judge denies Honeywell motion to dismiss asbestos claims

One of the most common defense tactics employed by defendants in claims based on exposure to asbestos is to ask the court to grant summary judgment in their favor. Such a motion is based upon the argument that all material facts have been (or can be) resolved prior to the motion and that the plaintiff has no viable claim. A North Carolina federal judge rejected this strategy in a recent case against Honeywell, Inc., ruling that a product liability lawsuit brought by the widow of a former filling station employee has enough evidentiary support to necessitate a trial.

The plaintiff's deceased husband contracted and died from mesothelioma, a disease caused almost exclusively by asbestos product exposure. His work in gas stations and on his family's automobiles exposed him to asbestos fibers in automotive brakes. He testified before he died that he usually used brakes manufactured by Bendix, a company that had been purchased by Honeywell.

How does asbestos cause cancer?

Many people in North Carolina and elsewhere know that asbestos can cause several forms of lung disease, including an especially deadly type of cancer known as "mesothelioma." But how, exactly, does this material get into people's lungs? And how does it cause a disease to develop.

Asbestos was originally regarded as a valuable building material because it has a high resistance to heat and flame and because its fibers can be combined with other materials to give added strength. Asbestos is a mineral that occurs naturally in the environment, but in its natural state, it poses almost no health risk. However, when asbestos is disturbed or when it is mined or used for pipe insulation or brakes or ceiling tile, the fibers can be released into the air. For example, an older building may have large amounts of pipe insulation that contains asbestos fibers. If the pipes are removed during demolition or rehabilitation, the asbestos-containing products can fractured, thereby releasing asbestos fibers into the air where they can be inhaled by workers or anyone else in the vicinity.

Asbestos and lung disease

This blog has repeatedly commented on the undeniable link between certain kinds of lung disease and exposure to asbestos fibers. Nevertheless, most people in North Carolina do not understand the different kinds of diseases that can be caused by asbestos. The following five conditions all are caused by exposure to asbestos-containing products.

  • Pleural plaque is a thickening and hardening of the tissue surrounding the lungs. Pleural plaque is general asymptomatic.
  • Pleural effusion is an excess of fluid in the pleural space. The fluid can often be removed, and the condition itself may not be serious but it may be a warning sign of another condition.
  • Asbestosis is the scarring of the lung tissue. Asbestosis can increase the risk of lung cancer, especially for persons who smoke.
  • Lung cancer forms in the tissues of the lung. It can be fatal if not properly diagnosed and treated.
  • Mesothelioma is an especially virulent form of lung cancer, and it is caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is almost always fatal.

Medical science has verified the causal link between the inhalation of asbestos fibers and the diseases listed above, but no one knows the least amount of fibers that can cause any of these conditions. Anyone who believes that he or she (or a loved one) has been exposed to airborne asbestos fibers should inform his or her physician. A physician can monitor the patient for signs of asbestos-related diseases and commence appropriate treatment if one of the diseases is diagnosed.

Asbestos insulation found on plumbing at Old Faithful Inn

This blog has repeated written about the hazard posed by asbestos in 19th and early 20th century buildings in North Carolina and elsewhere. Many reports of asbestos-containing products in historic buildings emerge when a building is slated for demolition or extensive renovation. A similar report has now been made about one of the most iconic buildings in the nation's national park system, the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park.

The information about asbestos in the Old Faithful Inn came to light when a maintenance worker filed a claim accusing the Inn's operator, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, of retaliating against him after he reported that he and five other workers suffered asbestos product exposure while working in the building. According to the worker' statement and other reports, many pipes in the west wing of the hotel were wrapped in asbestos. Several pipes ruptured when the heating system was turned on, and workers were required to break into walls to reach the leaking pipes. No warnings about the presence of asbestos were provided, and the workers were not provided adequate protective gear such as Hazmat suits and respirator masks.

Gasket manufacturers agree to $480 million settlement

One of the most intensely-litigated asbestos cases in North Carolina in the last few years has involved the Garlock Sealing Technologies. The case may now be nearing an end because Garlock's parent company, EnPro Industries, Inc., a Charlotte-based manufacturing conglomerate, has agreed to pay $480 million to establish a trust to pay all present and future claims based on exposure to asbestos-containing products manufactured by Garlock.

Garlock has been fighting asbestos lawsuits for forty years. Virtually all of the cases were based upon exposure to asbestos fibers in gaskets and similar products made by Garlock. Asbestos causes a number of respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, asbestosis and an especially virulent form of cancer known as mesothelioma. The costs of fighting and settling claims forced Garlock to declare bankruptcy in 2010. Garlock's bankruptcy has been supervised by the United States Bankruptcy Court in Charlotte, and the claims against the company are being supervised by the United States District Court in Charlotte.

Appellate court affirms asbestos damage award against Kaiser

Most asbestos cases are settled by agreement of the parties before trial, but occasionally, a case not only is tried to a verdict but is subjected to review by an appellate court. In a recent decision that should provide encouragement to asbestos plaintiffs in North Carolina (and in California, where the case arose), an appellate court affirmed a jury verdict asbestos product exposure against Kaiser Gypsum Company for more than $5 million in combined compensatory and punitive damages.

The plaintiff and his wife alleged that he had been exposed to asbestos from products manufactured by Kaiser, including drywall, joint compounds and cements. After a 10-week long trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff $21 million in compensatory damages but could not reach a verdict on punitive damages. After an appeal, the issue of punitive damages was tried again. This time, the jury awarded the plaintiff $21 million in punitive damages, but the trial court reduced the award to $4 million. Kaiser appealed, contending that the trial court committed a number of procedural errors.

Factory owner admits exposing workers to asbestos

This blog has written repeatedly about the danger posed by asbestos in old buildings in North Carolina and elsewhere. It is tempting to assume that any asbestos product exposure in these buildings is inadvertent, the result of ignorance or carelessness. A recent plea agreement in federal court shows that this assumption is not always correct.

In 2011, an inspector from the New York State Asbestos Control Bureau received a complaint that workers in a Rochester warehouse were being exposed to asbestos fibers. On visiting the warehouse, the inspector saw a number of persons, including a 16-year old boy, working next to a large dumpster that contained "large quantities of white fibrous material." The material was later determined to be asbestos. None of the laborers was wearing appropriate protective clothing or equipment. A second inspection by the United States Environmental Protection Agency found additional evidence of improper handling of asbestos.

Abandoned flour mill poses asbestos hazard for neighborhood

Most persons in North Carolina easily associate certain industries with the hazard of asbestos exposure. The wide-spread use of asbestos as an insulating material in industrial buildings is common knowledge. So is the use of asbestos fibers for automotive brakes and clutches. But flour milling? This industry would appear at first glance to be among the least likely sources of asbestos fibers, but an abandoned flour mill in southern Illinois has become the center of an increasing controversy solely because it contains a great many asbestos-containing products.

The mill was built by the Pillsbury Company, and an entire neighborhood grew up around the plant, ultimately earning the name "Pillsbury Mills." Pillsbury sold the plan to Cargill in the 1990s, and Cargill finally closed the plant in 2001 due to a declining market for the plant's output. The plant has remained locked and shuttered ever since, with razor wire atop the chain link fence that surrounds the plant.

Why does asbestos still pose a health hazard?

Most people in North Carolina are aware that exposure to airborne asbestos fibers can cause a variety of serious illnesses, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. These same people also realize that asbestos was identified as a health hazard in the 1950s and that efforts to eliminate it from the environment started in the 1970s. People now ask why, after more than half a century of asbestos litigation and clean-up efforts, does asbestos still pose a health hazard.

The answer begins with an understanding of asbestos itself. Asbestos is a mineral that is found in two basic forms, chrysotile asbestos and amphibole asbestos. Chrysotile fibers are curled and interlaced. Amphibole fibers are long and needle-like. Both types of fibers are strong, capable of being fabricated into many shapes, and - most importantly - heat resistant. The unique combination of properties made asbestos very useful as an insulating material and in heat-resistant products such as brake and clutch linings. Asbestos was widely used in many different applications from the mid-1800s to the present day. Perhaps the most common use of asbestos has been pipe and boiler insulation. It is almost a perfect product except for the ugly fact that it causes cancer.

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