SAN FRANCISCO, CA — March 21, 2001 — A jury awarded $8,224,600 to a former insulator afflicted with a fatal form of cancer, malignant pleural mesothelioma, caused by his occupational exposure to asbestos. The plaintiff was Alan Vasen. The defendant was Exxon Mobil Corporation (formerly Exxon Corporation; Standard Oil of New Jersey/Humble Oil/ Esso Oil), the owner and operator of an oil refinery located in Benicia, California.
The trial began on January 29, 2001, before San Francisco Superior Court Judge Carlos Bea. A jury was impaneled to hear the case and heard testimony. Closing arguments were presented March 16, 2001. The jury deliberated for 3 days before reaching its verdict. During the trial, testimony concerning asbestos, medical diagnosis, epidemiology, cell biology, industrial hygiene and Exxon Mobil Corporation's extensive corporate knowledge of the dangers of asbestos was presented, as well as evidence regarding Mr. Vasen's occupational exposure circumstances.
Alan Vasen began work as an insulator in late 1962 after serving honorably in the United States Navy aboard the USS Ticonderoga. Mr. Vasen joined the Heat, Frost & Asbestos Workers Union Local 16, San Francisco, California at the age of 22 years old. He worked as an insulator apprentice for four years and thereafter as an insulator mechanic until he retired in 1997. During the course of his career, Mr. Vasen worked at numerous job sites throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California. Most of his work prior to 1975 involved the application and removal of asbestos containing insulation, including pipe covering, block insulation and insulating cements manufactured by Johns Manville, Owens Corning, Fibreboard and Pittsburgh Corning. These products contained up to 65% asbestos fiber by weight. Mr. Vasen was required to cut, saw and miter the insulation before application, activities which generated excessive levels of asbestos dust. Mr. Vasen was unaware of the hazards of asbestos until the mid–1970s and did not protect himself from breathing the dust created by his work prior to that time.
Exxon Mobil Corporation, formerly known as Exxon Corporation (Standard Oil of New Jersey/ Humble Oil/ Esso Oil), designed, approved and oversaw the construction of an oil refinery located in Benicia, California, during the period 1966–1969. Alan Vasen worked as an insulator at this site from September of 1968 through mid–April of 1969. Mr. Vasen installed thousands of lineal feet of asbestos pipe covering and thousands of square feet of asbestos block insulation throughout the operating units of the Benicia refinery.
Evidence was presented at trial that Exxon Mobil Corporation had actual knowledge of the health hazards posed by asbestos insulation work beginning in 1937 when one of its safety engineers, Roy Bonsib, published an intra company report detailing such hazards to insulators and recommending safe work practices to avoid exposures at company refineries. The so–called Bonsib Report was never published outside of Exxon.
In 1947, the company hired James Hammond, a certified industrial hygienist, to oversee safety company wide. Mr. Hammond's videotaped deposition played to the jury, revealed that he fully appreciated the risks of asbestos exposure attendant to the work performed by insulators when he started with Exxon in 1947. Mr. Hammond testified that in conjunction with Exxon's considerable medical department, he further refined the recommendations of Bonsib with respect to safe asbestos work practices. Mr. Hammond adopted stringent maximum permissible exposure levels for asbestos starting in 1947, which he enforced throughout the company with the assistance of company industrial hygienists and safety personnel. In 1949, Mr. Hammond co–authored a confidential report in which he and other top safety personnel revealed their belief that asbestos could cause lung cancer and that insulators were a trade at risk for that fatal disease. By 1966, Mr. Hammond had become aware of and convinced that asbestos fiber inhalation could cause mesothelioma at levels lower than his own mandated limits and as a result he tightened his company's already stringent asbestos handling guidelines further. The threat of mesothelioma spurred Mr. Hammond to actively promote the use of non–asbestos insulation at company properties whenever feasible.
In addition to the videotaped testimony of Mr. Hammond, the jury was also presented with the videotaped deposition of Dr. Neill Weaver, the former medical director for the company, who admitted that he and other company physicians had accepted the connection between asbestos insulation work and mesothelioma by 1964. Dr. John Lione, a protégé of Dr. Weaver and successor to the medical directorship, claimed that the company asbestos safety programs, developed in conjunction with James Hammond, were extraordinarily effective, as demonstrated by the lack of any serious asbestos disease in Exxon employees up to the present time.
Mr. Hammond testified that control of safety for the Benicia Refinery project resided initially with the general contractor hired to construct the plant. However, Mr. Hammond further testified that once processing units were mechanically complete and turned over to Exxon, a process that started in early 1968, he and Exxon's safety department were responsible for the protection of all individuals working in the units, including the employees of outside contractors, such as Mr. Vasen. Despite Exxon's extensive knowledge of the hazards posed by insulation work at Benicia, inexplicably it failed to warn Mr. Vasen or any of the 450 insulators on site and/or exercise its authority to stop the work and institute its asbestos handling guidelines. Exxon did not provide respiratory protection to any insulator at Benicia after it assumed control of safety and permitted Mr. Vasen and his crew be exposed to extremely hazardous levels of asbestos.
Mr. Vasen was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma in February, 2000, several months after his 59th birthday. Mr. Vasen was a lifetime nonsmoker and nondrinker. He underwent four chemotherapy treatments which had no salutary effect and the chemotherapy was discontinued. He has been receiving palliative care since the fall of 2000, which consists of increasing doses of morphine to control the pain. Dr. Sidney Crain, his treating physician, has given Mr. Vasen a very poor prognosis and anticipates that he will die within the next month.
Malignant pleural mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer involving the lining of the chest cavity called the serous membrane or, more commonly the "pleura." It is caused by exposure to asbestos and is not caused by smoking. It typically presents in workers decades after exposure to asbestos and is invariably fatal. Despite much focused study and attention in medicine, there is still no effective cure or treatment for malignant mesothelioma.
Defendant Exxon Mobil Corporation was represented at trial by Susan Ogdie and William Armstrong of Ogdie & Armstrong of Oakland, California.