Justices find Jefferson County immune from asbestos suit, widow of former judge brought action

By David Yates | Sep 11, 2018

HOUSTON – Over the decades, the Jefferson County courthouse has received thousands of asbestos lawsuits but has rarely been named as a defendant in one of those cases.

On Aug. 31, a Texas appellate court found the county is immune from an asbestos lawsuit brought by the widow of a former judge, dismissing her claims.

Ellarene Farris, the widow of Judge James Farris, alleges that her late husband was exposed to asbestos in the Jefferson County courthouse and, as a result, died from mesothelioma.

Farris, who was 72 when he died, spent almost his entire legal career in the Jefferson County courthouse, which included a period of asbestos remediation at the courthouse, court records show.

Last July, the county brought an appeal after a trial court denied its plea to the jurisdiction, arguing governmental immunity had not been waived because it did not receive notice of the claim within six months, as required by the Texas Tort Claims Act.

Jefferson County contended notice was due within six months of Judge Farris’s last exposure to the courthouse in December 1996.

Conversely, Ellarene argued that she had no claim, and no notice was required until after Judge Farris’s death on Nov. 5, 2004.

The majority of justices for the First Court of Appeals did not agree.

“The wrongful-death claim only could be pursued if Judge Farris himself ‘would have been entitled to bring an action for the injury’ if he had lived,” the opinion states.

“As such, to the extent Jefferson County was immune from suit immediately prior to Judge Farris’s death in 2004 from any claim based on his exposure to asbestos prior to 1997 due to his failure to give notice of a claim, it was likewise immune from any wrongful-death claim by Mrs. Farris.”

Justice Terry Jennings dissented, however.

“Stunningly, the majority holds that the claims asserted by Ellarene are barred by governmental immunity because she did not provide notice of them to Jefferson County within six months of Judge Farris’s final exposure to asbestos in December 1996—before the existence of any injury or damage,” the dissenting opinion states.

“Based on the majority’s reasoning, Judge Farris was required to provide

Jefferson County with notice of a premature and speculative claim within six months of December 1996.

“But at that time, Judge Farris did not yet have a claim against Jefferson County for which he could provide notice because it was nearly eight years before he exhibited any symptom or was diagnosed with mesothelioma…”

Jefferson County is represented by Chief Civil Attorney Kathleen Kennedy.

Ellarene is represented by Jason Beale, attorney for the Bailey Peavy Bailey Cowan Heckaman law firm in Houston.

Appeals case No. 01-17-00493-CV

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