Asbestos and Asbestos Litigation Are Forever

When I first started practicing “asbestos law,” I routinely found copies of letters from JAG lawyers to shipyard workers, in their personnel files. The letters were notifying the workers that they had been diagnosed with asbestosis, usually by a local pulmonary physician who performed contract services for surveillance for the shipyard. The letters notified the workers that they might have rights under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act, but emphasized that the workers had remedies against the Navy’s vendors of asbestos-containing products, and that if they sued in tort, the Navy would have a lien against any recovery. In practice, the lien was so unwieldy, that most of the Philadelphia plaintiffs’ firms would forego filing the FECA claim altogether. Thus the Navy effectively limited its liability, and kept its munitions budgets intact, while dozens of its vendors went bankrupt.

In 2011, Kara Franke and Dennis Paustenbach published a review of historical documentation of the United States Navy’s knowledge of the hazards of asbestos use in its shipyards. Kara Franke & Dennis Paustenbach, “Government and Navy knowledge regarding health hazards of Asbestos: A state of the science evaluation (1900 to 1970),” 23(S3) Inhalation Toxicology 1 (2011). Earlier, in the 1980s, Dr. Samuel Forman published a history of Navy knowledge through World War II. Samuel A. Forman, “U.S. Navy Shipyard Occupational Medicine Through World War II,” 30 J. Occup. Med. 28 (1988). Both histories serve to add valuable context to the asbestos “state of the art” story, by showing that the United States had equal or greater knowledge of the hazards of asbestos at all relevant times, and that the government was in a vastly superior position to control asbestos exposures, outfit employees and servicemen with personal protective devices, and to communicate risk information.

The subject is well covered territory, but the article approaches its subject matter from the perspective of what was known by the United States Navy, which may well have been singlehandedly responsible for exposing the greatest number of men and women to asbestos in the United States.  Back in the 1980s, Dr. Sam Forman covered a similar theme, but only through War War II.  See also Samuel A. Forman, “U.S. Navy Shipyard Occupational Medicine Through World War II,” 30 J. Occup. Med. 28 (1988); Peter A. Nowinski, “Chronology of Asbestos Regulation in United States Workplaces,” in Karen Antman & Joseph Aisner, eds., Asbestos-Related Malignancy 99 (1986) (Nowinski represented the government in direct lawsuits against the United States for its role in creating the asbestos hazards of federal and contract shipyards).

In the early days of the asbestos litigation, defendants made several attempts to implead the government, or to sue for indemnification after settling. With some few exceptions, these efforts were largely unsuccessful. Susan L. Barna, “Abandoning Ship: Government Liability for Shipyard Asbestos Exposures,” 67 New York Univ. L. Rev. 1034 (1992); Statement of Linda G. Morra, Associate Director Human Resources Division, on behalf of the United States General Accounting Office, “The Status of Asbestos Claims Against The Federal Government”; before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Administrative Law and Governmental Relations (June 30, 1988).

In many states, employer knowledge was inadmissible in strict liability cases, and plaintiffs’ counsel would withdraw their negligence claims when they saw that defense counsel were prepared to implicate the government and its extensive knowledge. Unfortunately, many defense counsel failed to appreciate the potential that intermediary knowledge had for defending against punitive damage claims, which were often still in the case. And in some states, employer knowledge remained a defense in products liability trials, even when summary judgments were not given. See, e.g., In re Related Asbestos Cases, 543 F.Supp. 1142 (N.D. Calif. 1982) (permitting defendants to assert that Navy was sophisticated user as an affirmative defense at trial).

In the Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, asbestos litigation, plaintiffs’ counsel soon learned that reverse-bifurcation fit their litigation model perfectly: quick, inexpensive trials without the bother of liability defenses. When defendants occasionally found a judge that would permit all-issue trials, and they presented “state-of-the-art” or sophisticated intermediary defenses, they often surprised themselves as well as plaintiffs’ counsel and judges with their success. See, e.g., O’Donnell v. The Celotex Corp., Phila. Cty. Ct.C.P., July 1982 Term, Case. No. 1619 (trial before Hon. Levan Gordon, and a jury; May 1989) (defense verdict in case in which plaintiffs presented negligence claims and defendants presented extensive evidence of federal government’s superior knowledge of hazard and control of workplace).

Finding admissible evidence of the government’s superior knowledge was not always an easy task. In the O’Donnell trial, defendants presented the testimony of Dr. Kindsvatter, an industrial hygienist with a doctoral degree, who had been the chief hygienist at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for most of the post-World War II period. Counsel also had copies of Bureau of Medicine & Surgery bulletins, with ribbons and seal authentication. These bulletins announced the Navy’s adoption of threshold limit values for asbestos, and its mandate that the values be complied with in all shipyards.

More recently, additional resources have become available, courtesy of the internet. The Navy published a safety magazine, Safety Review, starting in 1944. Glimpses of Safety Review can be found on Google Books, and “snippets” of selected volumes 17-22 can be viewed at the Hathi Trust Digital Library[1]. Hard copies of the entire Safety Review can be found in a few university libraries, with the help of World Catalog.

More recently, has made available selected documents from a collection of documents from the United States Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. This website provides a search engine and a browse by subject option. The collection on line is incomplete, but does include some issues of United States Navy Medicine, and United States Navy Medical News Letter. Here is how the webpage describes the fuller archives:

“A historical component has existed at the US Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery since May 1907 with the establishment of the Publications Office. In addition to producing The Naval Medical Bulletin, the Publications Office was responsible for producing occasional historical monographs, and maintaining a historical archive. Today the Office of Medical History’s mission has evolved to preserve and promote the history and heritage of the Navy Medical Department while serving the needs of our customers. The collection consists of publications, public records, manuscripts, personal papers, hospital plans, Navy Hygiene Museum records, biographical files, subject files, facility files, films, videos, photographs, prints, drawings, and artifacts. The OMH currently consists of over 100 collections covering over 1,000 linear feet and is staffed by a historian and an archivist.”

So apparently, more is available at the archive than is available on line. Perhaps in the fullness of time, when there is no more asbestos litigation, the archives will be fully digitized. Of course, the ship has sailed on most civilian and military asbestos exposure cases, but the web and the paper archive will contain a great number of documents that show the government’s superior knowledge with respect to the relevant hazards of asbestos, at various times.

[1] Curiously, the Hathi Trust website states that Safety Review is protected by copyright law: “Full view is not available for this item due to copyright © restrictions. Page numbers with matches are displayed without text snippets due to these restrictions. Snippets may be available for some items if you log in.” Of course, as a governmental work and publication, Safety Review is not subject to copyright protection.

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