Testimony continues in asbestos trial

David Yates Jul. 19, 2007, 10:49am

An asbestos expert and industrial hygienist says oil refinery pipefitters were not exposed to enough asbestos to develop asbestosis, as testimony continued this week in the multimillion dollar trial in Judge Gary Sanderson's 60th District Court.

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

The case focuses on Joyce Myers, who as a child 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.

Myers' daughter, Shirley Melvin and her two siblings blame oil giant Exxon Mobil for her death. Provost Umphrey plaintiffs' attorney Bryan Blevins has spent the last week attempting to link Myers' cancer to the asbestos she may have handled years before in her father Acie Marshall '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.

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.

Testimony given by a retired refinery worker, who worked with Myers' father at Mobil, said although the company lacked specific asbestos safety programs, insulators, such as Marshall, were required to wear respirators.

The retired worker likened asbestos to cigarette smoking, saying people just didn't fully understand the dangers of certain products back then.

He went on to say that he "couldn't have worked for a better company," adding that Mobil demonstrated a great deal of concern for its employees during his employment at the plant.

However, Blevins contends Mobil "conveniently" lost documentation during the 1930s through '60s, proving that the company knew about the dangers of asbestos, adding that it took the government's formation of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration in the 1970s to clean up the refineries.

"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."

According to expert testimony given by an industrial hygienist, until OSHA arrived on the scene, roughly 40 percent of a refinery's insulation was composed of asbestos. He also said there was little information regarding asbestos before 1970, adding that when the "methodology" for researching asbestos improved in the 1970s, Mobil took note and created a data base to store the information.

During the trial, attorneys have referenced the testimony of an OSHA official, R. Davis Layne, given before a U.S. Senate committee on July 31, 2001.

"Since OSHA's inception in 1971, the agency has used its authority for standard-setting, enforcement, and compliance assistance to protect workers from the threat of asbestos," Davis told the Senate. "In fact, there has been more rulemaking activity involving asbestos than any other hazard regulated by OSHA."

Representing Exxon Mobil, attorney Gary Elliston of Dallas said in his opening remarks that 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."

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.


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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