By Catherine Melancon
MONROE - Eighty-two settlements and $2.3 million spent.
Mike Carter, owner of Monroe Rubber and Gasket in Monroe, La., said he has had 110 asbestos lawsuits filed against his family-owned business by more than 2,680 plaintiffs over the last 11 years. With 28 open cases remaining in court and just $700,000 left to spend before the limit of his $3 million insurance policy is reached, Carter said he is nervous he might not have enough money for his defense if the remaining cases go to a jury trial.
He said the future of his hose and gasket distributor business is in danger of being closed if he loses any one of the open cases and is forced to pay a high judgment.
"If they put me with several manufacturers, I have to split the reward with other manufacturers," Carter said. "Sometimes that amount is in the millions. Why can't we get something passed that will protect small businesses like myself?"
In spite of never having manufactured asbestos materials, Carter's business has nonetheless faced a flood of asbestos lawsuits. He said his involvement with asbestos has only been in buying sheets of encapsulated material containing asbestos that were manufactured somewhere else. He said a customer requested the material and he simply ordered what the customer wanted.
Carter said that of all the stores his company supplies to, not one employee has reported an asbestos-related disease.
"From the late '60's to 2012, never has there been an asbestos-related disease recorded in about 75 different companies," Carter said.
Carter said the Environmental Protection Agency even came into his store and conducted an air test when asbestos was first discovered to be harmful.
"Even though it was encapsulated, we wanted to make sure it was still good for our employees," Carter said. "The meter showed no hazardous material in the air."
Carter has traveled to the nation's capital in Washington, D.D. and the state capital in Baton Rouge to try to create bills to protect small business owners from meritless and frivolous suits, he said.
He said many other business people are in his position, but are too afraid to speak out about it.
"We still have trial attorneys flocking to Louisiana, because we just can't get passed what we need to protect businesses like myself," Carter said.
He asserts that once the asbestos manufacturing companies either went bankrupt or paid out, attorneys turned to the next smaller-tier businesses like his.
He said a small business person can lose it all when "you've been pulled into a vacuum of a trial attorney's greed."
He said he is worried that he might have to close his doors and fire employees if he loses one of the 28 remaining suits.
Carter employs 24 people at two locations.
"We work hard and you kind of want to have that legacy to pass down to your kids for them to have some kind of security, as well to bring them into your business," Carter said.
However, plaintiff attorney Brian Blackwell asserts that Carter's products released asbestos that harmed his clients.
"They took sheets of gasket material and made it into cut gaskets," Blackwell said.
"They cut those gaskets into different sizes and shapes, etc. for sale to their customers. By doing that, they converted themselves into a manufacturer of those products. They were more than just a seller. They became the manufacturer."
Blackwell said the asbestos exposure came when the workers broke open the pipes and scraped the hazardous material off so a gasket could be put in to seal liquid from leaking.
The use of the electrical grinder to grind or remove the material is where workers would have been exposed to asbestos in the gaskets, he said.
None of the cases Blackwell is representing have been to court yet.
"We had a trial or two in October and one in November that have been pushed back because of something he (Blackwell) had to do," Carter said.
Carter said he has fought the suits all he can, but if the jury comes back with a "crazy verdict," there's nothing else he can do.
"I'll have to turn the keys over to my store and my employees will have to go home to their families, and they'll come to me looking for an answer, and I don't have one," Carter said.