The first legal test of a controversial set of internal corporate documents that indicate efforts by former top asbestors industry officials to suppress reports of dangers of the cancer-causing mineral is scheduled to begin today in federal court in Knoxville, Tenn.
In an unusual lawsuit filed by a former asbestos insulation worker from Knoxville and his wife -- both now victims of asbestos-related "white lung"-- the documents are expected to be presented to a jury for the first time.
"These letters and documents are an admission of reckless indifference on the part of the asbestos industry to the safety of the general public," said Robert E. Sweeney, a Cleveland attorney who is representing the Knoxville couple.
Spokesmen for the asbestos industry have denied that the documents legally prove that asbestos manufacturers attempted to hide information from the public about possible respiratory problems caused by asbestos.
In testimony last month before a House subcommittee on compensation, health, and safety, Francis H. May, executive vice president of the Johns-Manville Corp., denied that the asbestos industry or his company acted in anything but a "responsible and reasonable manner" about asbestos dangers to workers.
May said no conspiracy existed to manipulate or suppress information about asbestos. He said that while some information going back to the 1930s did exist about asbestos dangers to miners and those who processed the material, the industry was not aware of potential danger to personnel, such as insulation workers, who handled asbestos products.
Earlier this year, Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. warned that as many as 8 million U.S. workers may have been exposed to asbestos during World War II. A separate report by federal cancer researchers this year predicted as much as 17 percent of all cancers expected to occur in the United States during the next two decades may be asbestos-related.
Sweeney's clients, J. Fred Campbell, 54, and his wife, Mamie, 51, both have asbestosis, said Sweeney. The disease can be caused only by exposure to asbestos and is often fatal, according to medical experts. Campbell was an insulation worker for 29 years and used asbestos extensively during that time. Sweeney said the presence of the disease in Campbell's wife is particularly unusual because her only known exposure to asbestos was through her husband.
The documents, which go back to the 1930, are mainly corporate memoranda and letters between top officials of Johns-Manville and the Raybestos-Manhattan Corp., two of the biggest manufacturers of asbestos and asbestos products in the nation.
The number of asbestos-disease law-suits has soared in the last two years from a relative handful to thousands. Attorneys involved in the suits -- including Sweeney -- have cited the corporate documents, which became part of the public record last year in pretrial motions connected with a separate trial in New Jersey, as critical to claims for punitive damages.
So intense is the interest in the asbestos situation and so complex are the unresolved legalities that last week several hundred doctors and lawyers paid $250 each to attend a three-da joint seminar at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City exchanging advice on how to handle asbestos cases.
In addition, several dozen attorneys from around the nation who are handling asbestos-disease cases recently formed a formal organization to exchange information quietly.
"I'm getting people who worked with asbestos coming to me for advice before they go to their doctor," said Gene Locks, a Philadelphia attorney with more than 750 asbestos cases.
"Sometimes," Locks said, "They come to see me because they don't understand what the doctor told them or derstand what the doctor told them or they dontt believe him. There's a lack of sophistication about asbestos among both doctors and lawyers."
During the New York seminar both doctors and attorneys noted a major problem for asbestos-disease claimants is the long time lag -- at least 20 to 30 years -- before signs of the disease show up.
Attorneys said that this posed problems in determining where the critical exposure occurred. Some doctors also said they were still unclear about the legal ramifications of their diagnoses of asbestos-related disease.
Attorneys at the seminar informed the other participants about the industry file which will be used in the Knoxville case.
The only other legal comment on the corporate material was made last August by South Carolina Circuit Judge James Price. Price granted a new trial to the survivors of a diseased asbestos insulation worker after a jury ruled against their claim for damages from a number of asbestos companies.
The judge ordered the new trial after reading the industry documents. He noted that they appeared to back claims that vital information had been kept from the public by asbestos industry executives.
The decision has been appealed by the asbestos firms in the case.