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Gordon and Emily Bankhead of California Awarded $13.5 million: All Four Defendants, Pneumo Abex, Arvin Meritor, and Co-Defendant Carlisle Corporation (which resolved before Phase 2), Acted with Malice, Fraud and Oppression, According to Court Documents

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On January 6, 2011 an Oakland jury returned a verdict awarding Mr. Gordon Bankhead and his wife, Emily Bankhead $13.5 million dollars during a second phase verdict assessing punitive damages against Phuemo Abex LLC ($9 million) and Arvin Meritor/Rockwell ($4.5 million). In the first phase of the trial, completed on December 22, the jury awarded $3.9 million in compensatory damages, and found that all four defendants, Pneumo Abex, Arvin Meritor, and co-defendant Carlisle Corporation (which resolved before Phase 2), acted with malice, fraud and oppression, warranting the second phase determination.

From 1965 – 1999 Gordon Bankhead was a parts worker who unpacked heavy duty truck brakes at a container seaport, Sea-land Shipping Company in Oakland, California. He was exposed to asbestos-containing brakes during the course of his work. He was present during the inspections, replacements, grindings and blowing out of asbestos dust. All of these activities caused him to breathe deadly asbestos dust.

Several lawsuits across the U.S. have been and continue to be filed against brake lining manufacturers Abex and Carlisle. In this case, they manufactured the vast majority of the brake linings Mr. Bankhead was exposed to, which in turn Rockwell and Fruehauf attached to brake shoes and axles that were sold to Mr. Bankhead’s employers.

The number of miners, millers, factory workers, insulators, Navy-men and shipyard workers, some of whom began filing workers’ compensation claims as far back as the 1930s, continues to rise. The modern era of asbestos lawsuits began in the 1970s with claims from these same groups of workers.

According to a Press Release that was sent out “Evidence at trial showed that Pneumo Abex had been aware of the deadly health effects of breathing asbestos dust since at least the 1940s, but that Pneumo Abex did not begin warning its customers of those effects, if at all, until years after Mr. Bankhead was exposed to the asbestos-containing brakes it made and sold. Abex and Carlisle were involved in discussions within the Friction Materials Standards Institute in the 1970s about whether to warn about the health hazards from its brakes. Rockwell knew starting in the early 1970s that its employees were exposed to dust from Abex and Carlisle brakes, but did nothing to warn its customers of the same hazards. As early as 1977, Rockwell learned that one of its employees who handled brakes was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the same disease Mr. Bankhead developed. Despite their knowledge of the hazards of asbestos, Carlisle and Pneumo Abex continued to sell asbestos-containing brakes until 1987; Rockwell did not cease selling asbestos brakes until 2000.”

Gordon Bankhead is among hundreds of former parts workers, mechanics, automotive and body shop employees known to have developed mesothelioma after working on brakes, clutches and gaskets, which contained the most common form of the mineral — chrysotile, or white, asbestos — well into the 1990s. Many have sued auto manufacturers and parts makers, litigation that reflects the unceasing burden of asbestos disease in the United States, and many of the U.S. top manufacturers have used asbestos-containing brakes, linings, or gaskets at one time or another, and many continue to do so.

The fact that asbestos causes mesothelioma and that corporations continue to use asbestos-containing products in the manufacturing, service or repair of brake linings is unconscionable. According to The World Health Organization “(1) all types of asbestos cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer; (2) there is no safe threshold level of exposure; (3) safer substitutes exist; (4) exposure of workers and other users of asbestos-containing products is extremely difficult to control; and (5) asbestos abatement is very costly and difficult to carry out in a completely safe way.”

Dr. Richard Lemen, a retired Assistant Surgeon General of the United States and Deputy Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1996, and now a proponent against the use of toxic substances, has written that “even the so called controlled use of asbestos containing brakes poses a health risk to workers, users, and their families.” In his role as a senior public health administrator, Dr. Lemen testified regularly before Congress on issues related to toxic substances, including asbestos. “Another 270,000 to 330,000 deaths are expected to occur over the next 30 years,” he told a Senate committee in 2007.
In court now, aside from a few heavily exposed claimants, are mechanics, teachers from asbestos-filled schools and the wives, relatives, friends, and children of workers who brought home asbestos on their clothing. Most of these people had relatively light exposures and developed mesothelioma, a disease that can take more than 50 years to appear in some cases.

In 1948, a newsletter from the National Safety Council, a public service organization, cautioned, “Asbestos used in the formulation of brake lining is a potentially harmful compound.” A bulletin the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued in 1975 warned that brake work could produce “significant exposures” to asbestos and recommended that employers use dust-control measures. Nearly 1 million workers were at risk, the institute said. It held meetings on the subject in 1975 and 1976; among those present were representatives of Ford, GM and Johns Manville, then the nation’s biggest manufacturer of asbestos products.

Experts say that the current U.S. workplace standard for asbestos — 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopted in 1994 — still allows a worker to inhale more than 1 million fibers over the course of a day. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that exposures at this level will produce five lung cancer deaths and two asbestosis deaths for every 1,000 workers over a lifetime. Federal officials think that 1.3 million workers in general industry and construction and 45,000 miners are still exposed to asbestos in the U.S.

Warnings about asbestos in brakes go back decades and remain in effect. In this case, we congratulate the jury for awarding this family some justice.

(Parts of this blog entry refers back to an article titled “Dangers in the Dust,” a joint investigation by the BBC’s International News Services and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The consortium is a collaboration of some of the world’s top investigative reporters. Launched in 1997 as a project of The Center for Public Integrity, the consortium globally extends the center’s style of watchdog journalism, working with 100 journalists in 50 countries to produce long-term, transnational investigations.)

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