Asbestos Exposure from Electrical Parts

San Francisco Jury Awards $2,999,543 in Asbestos Case

San Francisco, CA — December 9, 2003 — A jury awarded $2,999,543 to a 74–year old retired electrician, Philip Hoeffer, who is terminally ill with malignant pleural mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure on the job. The defendant, Rockwell Automation, was held liable for the defective products and negligence of its Allen Bradley division and a former division, Rostone Corporation.

Rostone Corporation developed, manufactured, and sold asbestos-containing phenolic plastic compounds and molded asbestos-containing parts for many of the major electrical equipment manufacturers since the 1940s, including GE, Westinghouse, Cutler Hammer, and Allen Bradley. Rostone asbestos-containing phenolic plastic compounds and molded parts were used for arc chutes, breakers, contactors, and enclosures found in distribution panels, breaker boxes, rotary switches, motor controllers, and other electrical equipment prior to 1985. Allen Bradley manufactured and sold asbestos-containing electrical equipment prior to 1985.

The trial began on November 3, 2003, before San Francisco Superior Court Judge Alex Saldamando. A jury was impaneled to hear the case. Jury members listened to closing arguments on December 3, 2003, then deliberated for four days before reaching a verdict. During the trial, they heard evidence concerning Rockwell Automation and its predecessor companies’ involvement with asbestos, as well as testimony about the historical use of asbestos, the medical diagnosis of mesothelioma, epidemiology, pulmonary medicine, pulmonary pathology, industrial hygiene, and medical articles concerning asbestos and disease.

A History of Asbestos Exposure

The plaintiff, Philip Hoeffer, was born in Southern California. He was first exposed to asbestos as a teenager when he disassembled and rebuilt an automobile that included asbestos-containing brakes, clutches, and engine gaskets. An enthusiast of sprint car racing, Mr. Hoeffer performed similar automobile repairs on other vehicles from 1944 through 1962.

After attending college at Pasadena City College for two years and at Saint Mary’s in Moraga, California, for one year, Mr. Hoeffer enlisted in the United States Navy in 1950. He trained as a Navy electrician and served aboard the ARD–29, the USS Hanson (DDR–832), and the USS Yorktown, until his honorable discharge in 1955. While carrying out his duties, Mr. Hoeffer came in constant contact with electrical equipment. He cleaned contacts with emery cloth and maintained the equipment with files and screwdrivers, frequently abrading the phenolic plastic parts, which released asbestos. Also, evidence showed that the operation of the equipment generated airborne asbestos due to friction and wear from moving parts. The equipment aboard Mr. Hoeffer’s Navy ships included Westinghouse panels, Cutler Hammer panels, and Allen Bradley switches, all of which contained Rostone molded parts.

After his discharge from the Navy, Mr. Hoeffer worked as a design engineer for Ralph M. Parsons in Pasadena, California, from 1956 to 1962. He developed prototype military equipment using early electronic miniaturization technology. In constructing these prototypes, Mr. Hoeffer cut and drilled asbestos-containing phenolic panels to use as circuit boards.

In 1969, Mr. Hoeffer moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. He worked for R.E. Lee & Sons, a large general contractor, from 1973–1978. During the construction of a nurse’s dormitory at the University of Virginia in 1973, Mr. Hoeffer supervised drywall workers sanding asbestos-containing joint compounds. He also oversaw the clean up of electrical equipment debris when an explosion destroyed Westinghouse distribution panels on every other floor of the nine-story building. Rostone asbestos-containing molded parts were used in those panels.

Mr. Hoeffer worked as the head of renovations for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville from 1978 to 2003, when he retired due to his present illness. He was frequently exposed to asbestos when performing retrofit, repair, and maintenance on electrical equipment made by Westinghouse, Allen Bradley, and GE. Most of this equipment contained Rostone molded parts that included asbestos.

Companies Failed to Warn About Asbestos Exposure Hazards

Neither Allen Bradley nor Rostone Corporation tested their products for fiber release during the decades each engaged in the manufacture and sale of asbestos-containing products. Neither company provided any warning to consumers about asbestos and did not indicate that asbestos was used in their phenolic plastic parts. Neither company recalled any of its asbestos-containing products, despite successfully developing asbestos-free substitutes in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Rockwell Automation presented expert witness testimony concerning fiber release testing performed at the request of Rockwell Automation’s national supervising counsel during the course of recent litigation. This testing, which revealed small fiber counts, was conducted under alleged “worst-case” conditions. This claim proved false, however. Historic internal documents obtained from Allen Bradley showed that more extensive testing of the same products had been done years before and produced visible dust from wearing of the asbestos-containing phenolic plastic parts. Rockwell Automation produced none of these test results at trial.

A Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Mr. Hoeffer was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the lung, in June of 2002. Previously he had survived a rare cancer, malignant schwannoma, diagnosed in 1986. He had been free of cancer for over ten years when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Medical testimony showed that his mesothelioma was unrelated to his prior malignancy and that it was caused by his asbestos exposure. At trial, Mr. Hoeffer described the course of his medical treatment and the effect it has had on his life. Despite doing well on chemotherapy and having his tumor progress slowly, Mr. Hoeffer is expected to expire within the next 12 to 24 months.

Attorney John Goldstein of Brayton Purcell LLP, Novato, California represented the plaintiff at trial. Rockwell Automation was represented at trial by Christopher Keele and Christian Marsh of Stoel Rives LLP, San Francisco, California. Nancy Stone of Shea & Gardner of Washington, D.C., is the national supervising counsel for Rockwell Automation.