An $80 million asbestos settlement involving two former Jackson County courthouse employees led to Missouri’s largest medical monitoring fund established in an asbestos case.
The class-action asbestos lawsuit settled more than 30 years after a renovation exposed thousands of government workers to deadly asbestos fibers.
Jackson County and Kansas City-based U.S. Engineering, the firm responsible for the asbestos removal, agreed to settle the case in October 2016, just a week prior to the opening trial date.
An estimated 7,500 people — former courthouse employees, jurors, attorneys and jail inmates — could qualify for ongoing medical screenings financed by the bulk of the settlement for the next 30 years, according to the Kansas City Star.
Seeking Preventative Medical Testing
Former employees Jeanne Morgan and David Elsea instigated the class-action suit in 2015, a few years after co-worker Nancy Lopez died of mesothelioma. The asbestos-related cancer, on average, claims its victims one year after diagnosis.
The two wanted nothing more than free medical testing for the rest of their lives — a way to ensure any potential asbestos-related health issues could be caught early.
But the asbestos settlement also made this possible for thousands of others, dividing the beneficiaries into two groups:
· Those who can prove they were in the courthouse for at least 80 hours during the two-year asbestos removal are eligible for thorough annual medical exams, including chest X-rays and blood screenings.
· Anyone who can prove they were in the courthouse for at least 80 hours in a year after work was done between 1986 and 2007 is eligible for one free screening every five years.
In 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court began allowing medical monitoring lawsuits contending that it could save lives and be less costly, rather than waiting for people exposed to toxic substances to get sick.
U.S. Engineering Took No Precautions
From 1983 to 1985, U.S. Engineering worked on renovations at the Jackson County courthouse.
Morgan testified that asbestos dust and grit coated everything as workers cut through old heating pipes wrapped in asbestos insulation.
Court records indicate workers tracked the lethal dust throughout the building as they hauled it down a freight elevator and out into the dumpster in the parking lot.
“The particles would be…all over the papers,” Morgan said in a 2015 hearing.
Witnesses testified the laborers didn’t use masks, gloves or post warning signs for unsuspecting employees. Fine dust particles blew out of the air vents during the two-year renovation.
A former top executive for U.S. Engineering offered testimony against his former employer, stating the company failed to prevent asbestos fibers from entering the air when workers cut sections of asbestos-covered pipes.
Company Said It Followed Regulations
Despite the asbestos settlement, U.S. Engineering continued to defend itself, offering a prepared statement the company “complied with relevant industry and regulatory safety standards” in effect at the time.
“Integrity and safety have always been at the heart of our 123-year-old, family-owned business, and we will not waiver from our commitment to these fundamental values,” CEO of U.S. Engineering Co. Holdings Tyler Nottberg said in the statement.
Asbestos use was common in building materials prior to the 1970s because of its excellent fire-retardant properties. Asbestos-containing building materials, such as flooring, insulation and ceiling tiles, pose little danger as long as they remain intact and undisturbed.
The danger comes when the materials are broken, chipped or cut, causing the release of microscopic asbestos threads into the air. When inhaled, the tiny fibers lodge in lung and abdominal tissue and in some cases lead to mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer or other serious respiratory illnesses.