Absestos Firm Pins Hope to an RV off eBay
On weekends, or whenever Simona Farrise finds time, she likes to go bargain-hunting on eBay and at garage sales near her home in the Oakland hills.
She once picked up a 60-year-old occupational safety manual, a document the lawyer later used in civil trials to show that American auto companies long ago knew—or should have known—about health hazards caused by asbestos exposure. Farrise paid 50 cents to take it home.
'Other people's junk makes for very good evidence,' said Farrise, a name partner at the asbestos plaintiff shop Kazan, McClain, Abrams, Fernandez, Lyons, Farrise & Greenwood.
Last month, Farrise might have scored her best piece of evidence yet. She went on eBay and purchased a white 1973 Dodge Fargo motor home, including some original factory-installed parts, from a seller in South Carolina.
Using information gathered from her newly purchased RV, which was towed to a lab in Georgia and stripped down for analysis, Farrise hopes to show that the asbestos materials used in certain car parts are much deadlier than auto makers are letting on.
She's scheduled to deliver opening statements Monday in the Alameda County Superior Court trial Price v. Warner, RG06254616.
Price reflects the changing nature of asbestos litigation across the country. Increasingly the focus is shifting away from industrial workers and over to their family members who came in contact with contaminated clothes and suffer from what's known as secondary, or take-home, exposure.
DaimlerChrysler is the lone defendant in a case that's already captured the attention of the local asbestos bar. Jeffrey Kaiser, a San Francisco asbestos plaintiff lawyer, called it a 'barn burner.'
'It would shock me if Chrysler wasn't spending enormous amounts of resources defending this case,' he said.
The plaintiff, Rebekah Price, is a 33-year-old preschool teacher and mother of two who claims she was exposed to asbestos as a child while hanging out with her grandfather and two uncles. All three of Price's older relatives worked at a Riverside Chrysler dealership in the 1970s, performing brake and transmission repairs on motor homes and trucks.
After taking a leave from work in October 2004 because of severe and recurring chest pain, Price was diagnosed this past January with mesothelioma, a fatal form of cancer that is closely linked to asbestos exposure.
THE COLOR OF MONEY
In asbestos litigation, the color of the microscopic fibers that lodge in the lining of a victim's lung or stomach to form mesothelioma can spell the difference between simple settlement and multimillion-dollar payout.
Most asbestos claims brought by afflicted auto mechanics or their relatives are traced back to a material known as 'white asbestos,' or Chrysotile, which was used to manufacture friction products such as brake pads and brake shoes.
Car companies defend against these claims by pointing to expert testimony from scientists who say there is no proven link between white asbestos and mesothelioma. Indeed, DaimlerChrysler plans to introduce testimony from a San Francisco-based epidemiologist to support its defense, according to declarations filed by the company's lawyers.
Plaintiff lawyers, meanwhile, present experts who say any exposure, regardless of the fiber type, can cause cancer.
Asbestos cases stemming from exposure to 'blue asbestos' (Crocidolite) or 'brown asbestos' (Amosite) are more difficult to fend off, defense lawyers say, because experts appear to agree on the lethal quality of these fibers.
'There is a growing body of medical literature that suggests Chrysotile is considerably less potent than Crocidolite and Amosite,' said defense lawyer John Brydon, a name partner at Brydon, Hugo & Parker who is not involved in the Price case.
Found mostly in construction and insulation products, blue and brown asbestos are not generally known to be a component in auto parts manufacturing.
Having used eBay to track down outdated car parts for previous trials, Farrise bought the Dodge Fargo after listening to an auto parts supplier's deposition.
'They were using an awful lot of [blue asbestos]. So the question was, 'What were they using it for?' she said.
Suspecting that DaimlerChrysler was using auto components with more than one type of asbestos, Farrise turned to the Internet. She paid just $1,625 for the vehicle.
When Farrise sent her Dodge Fargo to a Georgia lab for testing, she asked the technicians there to search for blue and brown asbestos fibers, in addition to the white ones they would normally expect to find. The results, which she plans to use as evidence in the Price case, showed a mix of all three fiber types in the automatic transmission bands, plus a fourth asbestos fiber, Anthophyllite, latched onto flat, coated rings in the forward clutch.
'It was a potpourri of poison,' Farrise said.
Lawyers at Thelen Reid & Priest, who are defending DaimlerChrysler, declined to comment on the trial. But Michael Palese, a company spokesman, said 'there is no scientific evidence for the allegations [plaintiffs] are making.'
In court papers, the DaimlerChrysler team put forward a broad defense against secondary exposure cases in general, noting that Price was never directly exposed to asbestos from any Chrysler product. Since Price never worked as a mechanic, the company said it had no duty to preserve her health.
'To hold otherwise would extend liability in asbestos cases to innumerable defendants from a virtually unlimited number of plaintiffs,' Thelen lawyers wrote in a motion for summary judgment. Last month, Judge Kenneth Burr denied that motion, allowing the case to go to trial.
Regardless of what happens at trial, Kaiser said the discovery of blue and brown asbestos in auto parts has the potential to undermine the auto companies' defense theory, developed and refined over many years and at great cost, to limit liability in friction cases.
'It's as though they've been practicing to hit any fastball in the major leagues, and [the] Kazan [firm] just threw them a big curve.'