Legends Scholarship honors the father of asbestos litigation

David Yates Oct. 7, 2008, 5:10am

Four decades after the filing of the first modern asbestos lawsuit, Lamar University and the Beaumont Foundation of America have honored the man responsible for engineering the litigation.

A Southeast Texas Legends scholarship was created in honor of Orange attorney Ward Stephenson, who "is credited with inventing asbestos litigation."

The announcement was made Oct. 2 by Lamar President Jimmy Simmons at the University Reception Center of the Mary and John Gray Library.

The Southeast Texas Legends scholarships, each an endowment of $100,000, are made possible by a gift of from the Beaumont Foundation, a non-profit corporation "that grew out of the historic $2.1 billion settlement of a nationwide � defective computer class-action suit �," according to a LU press release.

The interest accumulated from the endowment will go towards aiding students in need of financial assistance.

During the announcement, Simmons said LU was "delighted" to add Stephenson's name to their Legends roster, calling the attorney "a crusader against corporations."

"He (Stephenson) has been called innovate, creative and ahead of his time � and is largely credited with inventing asbestos litigation," Simmons said.

In 1966, Stephenson filed his lawsuit in Southeast Texas on behalf of asbestos insulation worker Claude Tomplait -- subsequently spawning a multi-billion dollar industry.

The suit faulted 11 manufacturers, including Johns-Manville and Owens Corning, for inflicting his client with asbestosis, or chronic inflammation of the lungs.

Only 20 years after Stephenson filed his suit, asbestos litigation had expanded into a billion-dollar industry, according to the Manhattan Institute.

More than 200 companies had been sued, most notably, manufacturer Johns-Manville, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 1982 despite its ranking in the top 200 American companies by Fortune magazine in 1981.

Stephenson lost Tomplait's case on appeal, but, "undeterred" soon filed a second case on behalf of Clarence Borel, an asbestos insulation installer who had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, the press release states.

Stephenson won the initial case, Borel vs. Fiberboard, and the verdict was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1973, "opening a floodgate of litigation because it (the decision) allowed employees to sue their employers for product liability," the press release states.

"Borel vs. Fiberboard is one of the most significant legal decisions of the millennium," Simmons said, adding that the Stephenson felt he had to expose the companies whom he thought were purposely concealing the dangers of asbestos.

Marilyn Tennissen and Scott Sabatini contributed to this story.

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