An 84-year-old Vashon, Washington (WA), man has received a $1.45 million jury award from the ships' services company whose negligence and disregard for workplace safety rules caused him to breath in asbestos fibers that caused the man's mesothelioma. According to a press release from the law firm Bergman, Draper & Frockt whose attorney represented the plaintiff in Roger E. Hammett, Jr. v. Sea Land Service, Inc., the exposure to the toxic and cancer-causing substance occurred over a 67-day period during 1966 while the man worked in the mess of the SS Seattle.
The company Residual Holdings, which took over Sea Land many years ago, will be responsible for paying the award to the man who was told by doctors that he would most likely die from his lung disease before 2013. The company was found negligent — and therefore liable — in not protecting Hammett from asbestos-containing dust raised by maintenance and repairs to insulated pipes on the Seattle.
KOMO-4 TV describes Hammett's legal victory and monetary award as "bittersweet." For his part, Hammett — who has trouble breathing, sleeping and engaging in his favorite pastime of gardening — called his mesothelioma diagnosis and, essentially, death sentence "a psychological disaster.
Even though I am a Virginia (VA) personal injury attorney — practicing about as far from Washington as possible — this case caught my attention for three reasons. First, I have represented dozens of workers and survivors of employees whose on-the-job exposures to asbestos and other toxic substances have caused incurable and fatal diseases.
Second, the case and its outcome illustrate how companies assume legal liabilities when they buy out or take over competitors. This is especially important in lawsuits involving railroads, which are a large portion of my practice. The freight rail industry underwent significant consolidation from the 1960s to the 1990s. That period also represented the high point for use of asbestos as an insulating and fireproofing material in rail cars, on train wheels and trucks, and in all types of railroad equipment. This all matters because it means, for instance, that CSX could be liable for an asbestos-related illness suffered by a former Chessie System or Seaboard System Railroad employee. Similarly, Norfolk Southern could be held legally responsible for mesothelioma developed by an engineer, brakeman, conductor or trainman for Norfolk & Western or Conrail.
Last, and most importantly from my perspective as someone who tells every client and many of my legal colleagues that providing evidence of exposure is more important than showing duration or amount, the former merchant seaman won his mesothelioma case while only informing jurors that his provable asbestos exposure lasted just a little longer than two months. The plaintiff and his lawyers argued that no amount of asbestos exposure was safe, and members of the jury recognized the truth of that.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.