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Justice Twenty-Plus Years in the Making

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$1,750.

That's how much Mason South received in 1997 as part of a lawsuit against Texaco and other companies for asbestos exposure. From 1945 to 1982, the merchant marine worked on ships owned by Texaco. Up until the 1970s, asbestos was common in building materials to prevent excessive heat that could result in fires. Simply put, the dangerous substance permeated vessels from stem to stern.

While asbestos use ceased, the danger of exposure remained on ships. Over time, those employees topped the list of those at risk of developing the grave and deadly diseases. After South contracted a non-malignant, asbestos-related disease, he and other workers sued Texaco.

As part of his four-figure settlement, South had to sign away his right to pursue future litigation regarding his medical condition. It was a document that took more than twenty years to determine that it was not worth the paper it was printed on.

In 2014, South received a second, more devastating diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma. In spite of the prior agreement, he filed another lawsuit against Chevron, the company that purchased Texaco. After his death a year later, his wife continued the legal battle.

It was no surprise that Texaco argued the lack of the lawsuit's merit. However, multiple verdicts from lower courts claimed otherwise. Recently, the New York Court of Appeals concurred with those decisions.

At issue was the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) that prohibits settlement releases that exempt a company from liability before detections and diagnoses of asbestos-related injuries. That includes South's nineties-era settlement. His widow's attorney also claimed that mesothelioma or any form of cancer did not show up in the release. A document described as "boilerplate," the court found that the list of "banned" diseases involved current, not future illnesses.

In the end, $1,750 did not come close to appropriate compensation for South's initial and tragically final diagnoses. Justice was served. Sadly, the merchant marine did not live to see it.

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