BEAUMONT – The First Court of Appeals recently heard oral arguments on whether to dismiss a lawsuit brought on behalf of a deceased judge who died of mesothelioma and was allegedly exposed to asbestos while working at the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Seeking punitive damages, Ellarene Farris, the surviving widow of James Farris, amended her asbestos lawsuit in 2006 to include Jefferson County, the former employer of Judge Farris, as a defendant.
Judge Farris was employed by the county as an assistant district attorney from 1961 to 1969; county court at law judge from 1969 to 1977; and 317th
District Court judge from 1977 until 1996, when he retired.
He passed away on Nov. 5, 2004.
While his family maintains he died because of asbestos exposure while working at the courthouse, the county argues the plaintiffs have pled no facts suggesting that Judge Farris was assigned to physically work in areas of the courthouse that contained friable asbestos.
“Judge Farris was never employed as a janitor or a maintenance worker, and, as such, should never have been in the maintenance rooms, or crawl spaces in the Courthouse,” states the county’s appellate brief.
Court records show on April 28, 2017, the trial court presiding over the case held a hearing on the county’s plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied two months later, prompting the county’s appeal.
On appeal, the county argues the Farris family failed to exhaust their administrative remedies before bringing suit by not filing a claim for workers’ compensation benefits first, negating the trial court’s jurisdiction.
The Farris family originally filed their suit on Dec. 30, 2004, against 39 asbestos-related corporations, alleging Judge Farris was exposed during decades of work in various locations and vocations, including shipyards, steel mills, refineries, paper mills, the military, chemical plants and courthouses.
“In their live pleading, Appellees allege that each of the defendants, with the exception of the County, engaged in the mining, processing, manufacturing, sale or distribution of asbestos,” the county’s brief states.
“However, it is uncontroverted that the County is a county of the State of Texas and, as such, has never been in the asbestos business.”
The Farris family alleges Judge Farris was exposed to asbestos while the courthouse, which was built in 1931, underwent renovations in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Oral arguments in the case were heard Nov. 8.
The county requested justices reverse the trial court’s denial of its plea.
Quentin Price, assistant civil attorney, represents the county.
The plaintiffs are represented by the Houston law firm Bailey Peavy Bailey Cowan Heckaman.
The case was filed in the 11th District MDL Court, Judge Mark Davidson presiding.
Case No. 01-17-00493-CV