Dirty laundry aired in asbestos trial

David Yates Jul. 11, 2007, 9:53am

While growing up, Joyce Myers helped her mother with the family laundry, a task that included washing the uniforms her father wore during his 22-year refinery career. From 1943 to 1965, Myers' father insulated pipes with asbestos at the Mobil Oil Refinery in Beaumont.

In January of 2000, Myers died from mesothelioma – a type of lung cancer that can be related to asbestos exposure – at the age of 64. She was also a former pack-a-day smoker.

Now Myers' daughter, Shirley Melvin, and her two siblings are in Judge Gary Sanderson's District Court facing oil giant Exxon Mobil in trial. Provost Umphrey attorney Bryan Blevins will spend the next two to three weeks attempting to link Myers' cancer death to the asbestos she may have handled years before in her father's "toxic" laundry.

Blevins only has to prove that the Mobil Oil Refining Corp., now Exxon Mobil, was at least partially responsible for Myers' cancer.

The trial began Tuesday, July 10, and is expected to conclude before the start of August. The plaintiffs are expected to ask jurors to award more than $1 million in punitive damages alone.

Asbestos is a natural fire retardant fiber and was used for centuries to insulate homes, offices, ships and equipment, like the pipe used at the Beaumont refinery.

Blevins and his clients contend that the people who make up the Mobil Corporation acted with malice during the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s by intentionally concealing information revealing the dangers of asbestos exposure and by failing to enact safety programs to protect workers and their families.

During the jury impaneling process, Blevins told potential jurors that they were going to have to "look at went on in the 70s" to prove that companies like Mobil acted with malice in the 1940s.

"We don't have a lot of physical evidence to prove what happened...," Blevins said. "We are going to have to rely on some circumstantial evidence."

Representing Exxon Mobil, attorney Gary Elliston of Dallas suggested to the jury pool that large companies were not fully aware of the dangers of asbestos until the 1970s.

"All of the plaintiffs' claims are based on hindsight," Elliston said, adding that one generation builds on the scientific knowledge of the previous generation, and that it was not till 1965 when the scientific community learned insulators, like Melvin's grandfather, were at risk of developing mesothelioma, let alone their children.

He went on to say that "if you condemn" Mobil for failing to protect workers from asbestos, then "you are going to have to condemn the whole world because no company, government, or union was doing it."

Elliston also said not all mesothelioma is caused by asbestos, especially in women. "80 percent of mesothelioma in women is of an unknown cause."

Both sides will bring in medical experts in attempt to sway the jury to their perspective.

When Elliston asked the pool of potential jurors if they could give Mobil "a fair shake" and disregard any "big business prejudices," most jurors responded with contemplative head nods and verbal grumblings concerning high gas prices.


Shirley Melvin's lawsuit is one part of a massive suit filed in 1994 -- Harold Daniels vs. Pittsburg Corning Corp. et al. The original 1994 suit has been severed roughly 220 times, with pieces of the suit being shipped to Harris County along the way.

With thousands of plaintiffs and dozens of defendants, the suit is so massive that its files occupy about half of the Jefferson County Courthouse's civil records basement vault.

To date, the suit has been amended 141 times, and accuses 68 corporations of mining, manufacturing and distributing asbestos products throughout Jefferson County.

Some of the defendants named include Viacom, Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse Electric and General Electric.

"Defendants were all negligent in failing to adequately warn of the dangers of asbestos exposure," the suit said. "Their failure was a proximate cause of plaintiffs' injuries and damages. Defendants were also negligent in failing to adequately test their products to determine the hazards associated with their products."

The petition also faults Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Corp. (3M Corporation) and American Optical Corp. for producing defective masks that failed to "provide respiratory protection."

Myers' case with Mobil, Case No. B150-374-BE, represents only one of the plaintiffs against one of the defendants that were severed from the original suit. Since 1994 there have been hundreds of trials, dismissals and settlements between the criss-crossing parties.

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