August 17, 2014

Saint-Gobain at center of lawsuit over asbestos exposure

Four decades too late, Joan A. Girard realized she had a problem.

Richard W. Girard, her deceased husband, came into contact with asbestos while he worked at the Norton Co. in Worcester from 1959 until the 1970s.

Richard then brought asbestos — a strong, durable, flame-resistant adhesive used as insulation in thousands of products during the mid-20th century — home on his clothes to Joan, now 74 and aWorcester resident, according to a lawsuit she filed earlier this year in Middlesex Superior Court against Norton (now part of Saint-Gobain).

Today, Joan, has contracted malignant mesothelioma, an incurable form of cancer caused solely by asbestos exposure that often kills people within two years. Not widely known at the time was that asbestos broke down into tiny, invisible fibers that could be breathed in and carried into the lungs.

"It's like a death sentence," said Francis Boudrow, business manager of Boston-based Local #6 of the International Association of Heat & Frost Insulators & Asbestos Workers. "Asbestos was used the way it was intended, and it's killing people."

Saint-Gobain acknowledged receipt of Girard's complaint in the court docket, and a company spokesperson declined to comment further. The spokesperson said asbestos had been used to strengthen some of Norton's grinding wheels, but that practice ceased in 1980.

A different kind of case

Girard's case is unusual in that the claim is being brought by the spouse or child of somebody working with asbestos rather than the worker himself. Only a couple of the more than 120 asbestos cases handled each year by Thornton & Naumes in Boston involve exposure by a spouse or family member, said Andrew Wainwright, Girard's lawyer.

These cases are particularly challenging, Wainwright said, since the plaintiff needs to prove not only that the employee worked with asbestos, but also that his or her clothes were dusty enough that family members were exposed as well.

Girard's case has been placed on an accelerated docket due to the severity of mesothelioma, with a trial date set for December. Wainwright said asbestos-related cases are normally resolved through settlement and rarely go to trial.

French multinational Saint-Gobain is one of more than 8,400 businesses named as defendants in asbestos litigation since the first such suit was lodged in 1966, according to a study by the RAND Institute for Civil Justice.

Most claims come years after exosure

Asbestos claims have been filed by more than 730,000 people and have cost insurance companies at least $85 billion, according to the insurance industry credit-rating agency A.M. Best Co., with some 100 companies that mined or processed asbestos having been forced into bankruptcy.

Asbestos was pervasive from the 1930s until the late 1970s, Wainwright said, when federal regulations limiting the potential for airborne asbestos dust in the workplace forced employers to stop using asbestos-based products.

"Insurers today might be paying on asbestos claims for people exposed in the 1950s and 1960s," said Bob Hartwig, president of the Manhattan-based Insurance Information Institute. "It has proven to be extremely costly."

Mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis are the three most common illnesses associated with asbestos exposure.

At least two decades typically pass between exposure to asbestos and the displaying of symptoms of mesothelioma, Boudrow said, with the illness rarely seen in people younger than 50. These claims tend to be costly, A.M. Best found, and continue to be filed at high rates due to the long latency period.

The rise in damages awarded to plaintiffs in tobacco lung cancer cases has been fueling additional suits that have alleged that asbestos exposure also contributed to the lung cancer, according to A.M. Best. Between 2 and 5 percent of new lung cancer cases are caused by asbestos exposure, attorneys now claim.

But claims of asbestosis — which involve the scarring of lung tissue — have fallen since that requires frequent exposure over long periods of time, which Boudrow said is rare nowadays.

That, coupled with tort reform — which clamped down on suits against companies involved with installing products with asbestos — has resulted in a drop in the number of cases filed. But total damage amounts remain high due to the severity of the remaining cases.

Local insurers, though, have escaped nearly unscathed. Less than 0.1 percent of claims at Worcester-based Hanover Insurance Group are linked to asbestos, spokesman Michael Buckley said. And a spokesman for Commerce Insurance Co. of Webster said the firm has virtually no asbestos-related liabilities.

But it's a different story for the Nationwide Group, which purchased Harleysville Worcester Insurance Co. in 2012. Nationwide lost an average of $90.9 million annually to asbestos claims between 2008 and 2012, A.M. Best found, the eighth highest figure of any insurance company. Nationwide didn't respond to a request for comment.

Jack Healy, director of operations for the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) in Worcester, said it wasn't uncommon for manufacturers to have materials with asbestos on premises. But Healy said most of the local firms sued for asbestos exposure are no longer around.

"Like a lot of other things at that time," Healy said, "we thought asbestos was a miracle material."

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