I learned a valuable lesson early in my career. I learned that there were some clients I could not represent. I agreed to serve as an asbestos attorney for the defense in an asbestos litigation case in Kansas City, Missouri. The Plaintiff had mesothelioma. As local counsel, I did not participate in the preparation of the case and only played a support role at trial. It was the best legal education i ever received. The testimony in that case, however, made me realize I could never represent a company that exposed innocent workers to asbestos again.
The medical testimony described how asbestos fibers lodge themselves in the lining of the lung when they were inhaled. The body can’t expel them. All it can do is it encapsulate the abestos into cysts.
The industry knew that asbestos causes lung disease as far back as the late 1800’s. At the trial, Barry Castleman talked about the history of asbestos and the knowledge the industry accumulated. I had the honor of hearing him tell his story for half a day. If you can spare eleven minutes, it’s well worth it to hear him talk about his work to fight the continued use of asbestos in the developing world.
I came to believe that my client knew about the dangers of asbestos and knowingly exposed workers. A Bendix executive famously wrote “If you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it.” The problem was that these executives made these decisions for workers without consulting them. Worse, they intentionally hid evidence that asbestos causes cancer. Crucially, however, they knew that they would be long gone before people started getting sick in sufficient numbers for the dangers to become known to everyone. In the meantime, they placed profits ahead of lives. That, to me, is the definition of evil.
In 1924, there was medical literature connecting asbestos exposure to asbestosis in the United States. British Mining concerns knew about the disease in the workers half a century earlier. By 1935, the link to lung cancer was being made. The real boom in asbestos use in the United States, however, was from the early forties to the mid-seventies.
What was discovered, and hidden from the public, was how devastating the disease could be. Those cysts that formed when the body tried to protect itself from the asbestos fibers didn’t just lie dormant. They were time bombs waiting to mature into tumors. It can take decades but eventually the mesothelioma and non-small cell lung tumors can form. Often, these tumors developed in the space between the lung and body in the pleura, a protective layer around your lungs. The tumors that lodged there were particularly nasty and were named mesothelioma. With some notable exceptions, a diagnosis usually came with six months to a year to live.
Since that fateful trial, I have had the privilege of meeting workers facing a death sentence and being able to help them know their families would be provided for. The client I remember the best was Jacob Weber. I spent many days with them. The gift Jake gave me was an understanding that the real loss of a loved one was often something so small yet all-important. One simple fact told you who Jake was. His wife didn’t know how to use a gas pump. Jake never let her tank get below a quarter full. He would come home after a long day or week or working on locomotives and still ensure that her tank was filled before he headed out to do it again.
I am so proud to represent families and workers exposed to asbestos. It is an honor to be brought into their lives and entrusted to tell their story.