July 12, 2016, PLLR E-Newsletter | The American Association For Justice Archive

July 12, 2016, PLLR E-Newsletter

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Valve maker’s failure to warn of asbestos dangers led to veteran’s mesothelioma

asbestos warning sign

The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s valves were defective in that they contained asbestos and the defendant knew or should have known of the danger but failed to warn. The jury awarded $3.2 million. Shays v. Jenkins Bros.

Scott Shays was a decorated U.S. Navy veteran and a member of the Vermont National Guard. From April through December of 1976, when he was 17, Shays served as a machinist mate/fireman apprentice aboard the USS Plymouth Rock. In that job, he was exposed to asbestos gaskets, packing, and external insulation used in connection with Jenkins Bros. valves. In 2014, at age 55, Shays began experiencing symptoms of mesothelioma. He underwent five surgeries, multiple hospital stays, chemotherapy, radiation, and two months of hospice care. He died of mesothelioma two years later, at age 57, survived by his mother, four adult children, and 11 grandchildren. 

Before his death, Shays sued Jenkins Bros., alleging that the company’s valves were defective in that they contained asbestos and that Jenkins knew or should have known of the danger but failed to warn. The plaintiff also alleged that the defendant acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others.

Decades of knowledge

At trial, the plaintiff’s state-of-the-art expert presented evidence that the dangers of asbestos were first published in 1898, and that by 1930, they were well established in the medical and scientific literature. He testified that beginning in the late 1940s, the dangers of asbestos were published in popular publications such as Newsweek and the N.Y. Times. The plaintiff also offered evidence that numerous Jenkins Bros. employees were members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in the 1930s, that ASME mailed its members newsletters that included articles about the dangers of asbestos, and that Jenkins’s head engineer was an ASME member and therefore would have received the newsletters.

Other testimony established that in 1964, the N.Y. Academy of Sciences held a conference at which leading medical doctors from all over the world presented studies and their findings on asbestos and disease, including mesothelioma. The conference was open to the public, and many heads of industry attended. The N.Y. Times also published articles about the event. Jenkins Bros. did not attend, despite the fact that at that time, its corporate headquarters was less than a half mile away.

The plaintiff noted that OSHA was passed in 1971 and became effective in 1972—four years before Shays was ever exposed to asbestos from a Jenkins valve. Thus, the plaintiff claimed, although there was a federal regulation addressing the use of asbestos and requiring manufacturers to warn for nearly a half a decade, Jenkins did nothing to warn of the dangers associated with the foreseeable use of its product.

The lawsuit also named various other manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos-containing products, including valve manufacturer Fairbanks Co. A number of the other defendants settled before trial for confidential amounts, and Fairbanks settled during trial for a confidential amount and remained on the verdict form.

Jenkins denied that exposure to asbestos in its product caused Shays’s disease. The defense industrial hygiene expert testified that exposure to the defendant’s product was a low-dose exposure.

The jury allocated fault at 50 percent to Jenkins and 50 percent to Fairbanks and found that Jenkins had acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others. The jury then awarded $3.2 million for Shays’s pain and suffering. Because of the finding of recklessness, Jenkins is reportedly liable for the full amount of the verdict.

Citation: Shays v. Jenkins Bros., No. 703/2015 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Schenectady Cnty. May 18, 2016).

Plaintiff counsel: Brittany Russell and AAJ member Rachel Lanier, both of New York City.