A lesson in history: Founder of bankrupt Johns Manville died of asbestos-related illness

Steve Korris Jun. 17, 2005, 3:00am

Henry Ward Johns started experimenting with asbestos in 1879, at age 21. His work laid the foundation of Johns Manville, a great American business. It also killed him.

A coroner attributed Johns' death at age 40 in 1898 to "dust phthisis pneumonitis." But hindsight makes obvious what the cororner missed--Johns had inhaled asbestos fibers, which irritated his lungs and eventually destroyed them.

Nineteenth century doctors did not recognize a connection between asbestos and lung disease, although circumstantial evidence had offered itself 2,000 years ago.

Nobles of the Roman Empire impressed dinner guests by throwing asbestos napkins into fireplaces and bringing the napkins out whole and white. Roman historians noted that some slaves coughed a lot and died young. These slaves had woven asbestos napkins.

Medical research on the effects of asbestos exposure began in 1924. In 1927, doctors identified lung damage from asbestos as a disease. They called it asbestosis.

A foreman in the weaving department of a Massachusetts asbestos factory filed a worker’s compensation claim in 1927. The state awarded compensation.

Other early examples include:

  • In 1929, 11 workers sued Johns Manville for asbestos exposure. They settled in 1933 for $30,000.

  • In 1932, a maintenance worker in a federal hospital filed an asbestosis claim that resulted in the first disability award.

  • In 1935, workers at a Johns Manville plant in Waukegan sued the company. A judge threw out the suit, saying the workers had no right of recovery at common law or through worker’s compensation.

    That decision curtailed litigation until 1957, when a worker sued Johns Manville. The plaintiff and the company settled in 1959 for $35,000.

  • In 1960, a worker sued Eagle-Picher. The plaintiff died, and his widow pursued the case. Her amended petition added Johns Manville, U.S. Rubber, Owens Corning Fiberglas, and seven other companies as defendants.

    The multiple defendant strategy backfired. A judge dismissed the suit, saying the widow could not prove whose products her husband had used.

  • In 1961, a worker filed a wrongful death suit against Johns Manville. He and the company settled for about $10,000.

  • In 1964, doctors at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City published a study estimating that 21 million Americans had been exposed to asbestos at work from 1940 to 1980. The study predicted 8,000 to 10,000 deaths a year for the next 20 years.

    Asbestosis suits increased. More and more plaintiffs named multiple defendants.

  • The widow of a plaintiff in federal court in Texas won a judgment of almost $80,000 against 11 manufacturers. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in 1973, ruling that multiple defendants could be held jointly and severally liable for damages.

  • In 1975, a jury in a Minnesota federal court ordered Johns Manville to pay $200,000 to a plaintiff, Karjala, who had worked for the company from 1948 to 1966.

    The company appealed under the statute of limitations. The appellate court ruled that the statute started to run when harm manifested itself, adding that when harm manifested itself was a jury question.

  • Hundreds of workers and survivors of workers at a Texas factory that made sleeves for pipes on Navy ships sued manufacturers and the United States. A 1977 settlement provided $20 million including $5.7 million from the federal government.

  • In 1982, five juries awarded more than $3 million to Johns Manville plaintiffs. The company faced 16,500 asbestos suits. Its legal fees ran to $2 million a month.

    The company’s owners estimated that their liabilities exceeded their net worth and their insurance limits combined. Johns Manville declared bankruptcy.

    In the next 20 years, 77 more companies attributed bankruptcies to asbestos liability.

    According to Barry Castleman, author of "Asbestos – Medical and Legal Aspects," published by Aspen, about $70 billion in damages have been paid, with projections of ultimate payments of $200 billion.

    According to "Forecasting Product Liability Claims," a textbook published by Springer, plaintiffs have sued more than 6,000 companies in virtually every industry.

    The book says the number of defendants per case grew from 20 in the 1980s to 60 or 70 in the 1990s.

    At the end of 2002, the book says, about 250,000 asbestos claims were pending in state and federal courts.

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