In Illinois last week, a Sangamon County jury decided against St. Louis, Missouri-based Bondex International, manufacturer of textured paints, finishes and joint compounds, and for former Springfield postal worker/handyman William Willis.
The settlement is the result of an asbestos exposure trial which called into question the liability inherent in asbestos-containing products manufactured by Bondex, Minnesota-based CertainTeed Corp., and Atlanta-based paper and building products manufacturer Georgia-Pacific Corp.
Willis, 69, currently lives in Arkansas, but spent most of his life in the Springfield area and worked as a U.S. Postal Service employee on the night shift from 1966 to 1992. In addition to his scheduled work, Willis was also employed as a truck driver, bus driver, and in home construction and repair from about 1960 to about 1980.
It was as a home repair specialist that Willis came into contact with CertainTeed's asbestos-containing pipe, and pipe joint compounds made variously by Bondex, Georgia-Pacific and other firms - all of whom reportedly phased out the use of asbestos in their products in 1977.
Willis, who said he developed incurable pleural mesothelioma as a result of working with the asbestos-containing compounds, noted in his suit that - to the best of his knowledge - none of the products contained warnings about their asbestos content, or if they did the warnings were not explicit.
Asbestos was widely used in insulative products, floor and ceiling tiles, and mastics or sealants, through most of the last century, until health officials began to recognize the dangers. In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limited the use of asbestos in American-made products to one percent by weight (or volume).
Unfortunately, mesothelioma is a legacy disease which lies dormant for decades before causing enough symptoms to allow doctors to readily diagnose it. By that time, the prognosis is almost always poor because so many tissues and vital organs have been affected. Most patients suffering from pleural mesothelioma of long standing are given between a year and 18 months to live. Ten percent survive up to five years.
The settlement was reduced for prior settlements made with Willis, and his pretrial request for punitive damages was denied. The cost is levied solely at Bondex. CertainTeed and Georgia-Pacific were not ruled to be negligent, even though Bondex lawyers argued that, after decades, Willis could not be sure which manufacturer's products he had commonly used and what the labels might have said.
This is the same defense Bondex and Georgia-Pacific used in a similar trial in 2006, when they defended themselves in a Madison County courtroom by calling in metacognition and metamemory specialist Charles Weaver III, Ph.D, of Baylor University, who argued for the plaintiffs that people can't generally remember the brand name of a product used four decades previously, let alone what the product's warning label said.
The 2006 case revolved around 84-year-old Anita O'Connell, whose son Michael argued that Anita's asbestos-related disease resulted from her washing both her husband's and son's work clothes during 1966 to 1970 when the two men worked at the elder O'Connell's firm, Burbank, Illinois-based Bel-Aire Plastering.
According to Michael, the firm used joint compounds made by both Bondex and Georgia-Pacific, though he admits he also saw other manufacturer's products as well. His case was eventually damaged by the fact that, while drywall workers use joint compounds to seal and finish sheetrock wall edges, plasterers do not.
The lawyers in the most recent case also stated that Bondex's pipe compound never contained enough asbestos to cause harm, though in fact OSHA, the CDC, and the American Cancer Society agree there is no minimum, safe level of asbestos exposure; a day or a lifetime can trigger mesothelioma.