Debate over evidence escalates in DuPont asbestos trial

David Yates Mar. 13, 2008, 4:32am

The trial against DuPont got a late start on March 12, as attorneys spent most of the morning arguing over what evidence would be allowed and which witnesses would be allowed to testify.

Now in its fourth week, the trial in Judge Floyd's 172nd Judicial District Court focuses on plaintiff Willis Whisnat Jr., a former B.F. Shaw pipefitter who worked at DuPont back in 1966 as an independent contractor. His family claims he was exposed to enough asbestos fibers to contract mesothelioma, a lung condition that took his life at age 72.

DuPont's attorneys wanted to enter B.F.Shaw employee records that they believe show that Whisnat spent most of his time at DuPont Sabine Works isolated away from asbestos. B.F. Shaw closed in 1988 and the company's records were warehoused in Alabama. However after DuPont was finally able to recover the records, Floyd did not allow them to be entered as evidence.

The plaintiffs argued that Whisnat's work records had not been authenticated, and "could have been produced on a word processor."

Also denied was the testimony of an independent contractor who worked at another DuPont facility in Victoria. He was ready to testify that at that facility B.F. Shaw warned its employees of the dangers of asbestos and instructed workers to wear dust masks when working around the material.

DuPont's attorneys told Floyd that the plaintiffs were trying to ban any evidence that would contradict their case.

The trial began Thursday, Feb. 21 and is expected to conclude sometime in late March.

After Whisnat's death, his family joined an ongoing class-action suit against DuPont and several other oil and chemical companies, which was first filed in the Jefferson County District Court on June 4, 1998. The class members claim DuPont negligently and maliciously exposed workers to asbestos when the company knew asbestos dust and fibers created health hazards.

According to medical testimony, Whisnat's chest was riddled with bone-eating tumors, a condition the plaintiffs are attempting to link to Whisnat's stint at DuPont.

In his opening remarks, plaintiff's attorney Glen Morgan said DuPont's asbestos policies during the '60s, '50s and '40s were so malicious that the company's "right to exist should be taken away."
Morgan is a partner in the Reaud, Morgan & Quinn law firm.

The plaintiffs maintain that DuPont knew about the dangers of asbestos as early as 1940, but chose to conceal their findings and focus on a defense to protect the company from lawsuits rather than implement policies that would save the lives of its workers.

DuPont's attorneys argue that its 1940s studies only focused on people who were "heavily" exposed to asbestos on a daily basis, like miners for example, not chemical plant workers.

DuPont also argues that the chemical company took steps to protect its employees from asbestos before OSHA implemented asbestos guidelines in 1972.

Previously, jurors heard excerpts of depositions given by several former DuPont workers who worked with Whisnat during the late '60s.

The workers testified that they never saw Whisnat wearing a respirator - a device designed to filter asbestos dust.

DuPont contends that its safety policies during the '60s and '70s required employees working around "extreme" dust to wear respirators.

However an industrial hygienist, hired by the plaintiffs, testified that workers were not capable of determining when they were working in "extreme" dusty conditions.

Case No. E159-183-Q

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