Attorneys in a Kansas man’s asbestos lawsuit delivered opening statements today before a jury.
Plaintiff James Reef filed his suit in December 2012 against several defendants, including Georgia Pacific, the sole defendant in the jury trial.
Reef, 69, began carpentry in 1965 at the age of 19 and according to his suit, spent 50 percent of his time working on drywall with Georgia Pacific’s joint compound paste.
Reef alleges the compound contained asbestos, which led to the mesothelioma he was diagnosed with in October 2012.
Attorney Carson Menges of Flint & Associates LLC in Glen Carbon represents Reef and made opening statements today.
Reef was unable to attend the jury trial due to poor health. He is currently residing in a nursing home in Kansas.
Menges began his opening statements by showing the jury photos of Reef, who he said was diagnosed with mesothelioma after working with Georgia Pacific’s joint compound from 1965 until 1977. He said Reef only used Georgia Pacific’s products throughout his career.
“It was a big name,” Menges said, “a popular brand.”
Menges said Reef does have other health issues, including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, but that there is no evidence that those conditions caused his mesothelioma.
Doctors, Menges told the jury, have only given Reef a few months to live.
“No one is going to tell you that Mr. Reef’s mesothelioma isn’t going to kill him,” Menges said. “He’s going to die.”
Menges explained to the jury how dry walling works and that Reef had to use the joint compound three times for every dry wall project in order to get a smooth finish. The compound paste hides the seams in the wall and makes it look like one large sheet, Menges said.
When Reef applied the joint compound the first two times, he used a dry compound, which Menges said must be mixed with water because it is cheaper. Reef, he said, was exposed to the asbestos fibers when the powder released dust into the air and then again when he sanded the seams down.
For the third layer of joint compound, Menges said Reef use d the ready mix mud, which only exposed him to asbestos when sanding it down.
Menges told jurors that mesothelioma is cancer of the lining of the lungs and is a latent disease. People go through long periods between exposure and diagnosis, which Menges said is the case with Reef, who was exposed in the 1960s and 1970s, but wasn’t diagnosed until 2012.
Menges said that asbestos is microscopic, which is why it is so dangerous. People can’t know they are in danger unless someone tells them and Menges claims Georgia Pacific failed to warn Reef about the dangers if he didn’t use a mask.
“What did Georgia Pacific know?” Menges asked. “And when did they know it?”
Menges told the jury that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a statement saying there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, but “the fact is, that while there is no safe level, Mr. Reef was exposed to high levels."
Menges said that as early as 1902, publications expressing the dangers of asbestos began to arise, but that Georgia Pacific didn’t find their products dangerous enough to warn carpenters of the asbestos fibers.
After letters, meetings and publications, Menges said Georgia Pacific began to include warning labels on their dry product in 1973 and ready mix in 1974.
He told jurors that Georgia Pacific’s plan was to place the blame on contractors for not insisting on the use of masks when using the compound.
Menges said Georgia Pacific’s joint compound contained asbestos until 1977 and that it was only removed from the product because it was banned. Georgia Pacific, he claims, planned to keep the asbestos in their products as long as possible even as other companies were removing it.
He concluded his opening statement today by telling jurors the asbestos fiber in Georgia Pacific’s joint compound was Chrysotile, which is a curvier fiber. He said some argue that this type of fiber can’t cause cancer, but said Dr. Stephen Godfrey will testify during the trial that these fibers can cause mesothelioma and did cause Reef’s disease.
“You’re going to have to decide in this case whether Georgia Pacific’s product caused mesothelioma and whether it knew their product was dangerous,” Menges told jurors.
Attorney Jeff Hebrank of HeplerBroom delivered opening statements for Georgia Pacific today as well.
He told jurors there was no exposure or harm and as such, no liability. He said Reef was not exposed to Georgia Pacific’s asbestos products and that his client's products did not cause his mesothelioma.
Hebrank said when Georgia Pacific learned of the potential harm, it put warning labels on the buckets of the product.
He told jurors that Reef’s long list of illnesses and family history plays a part in his poor health. Hebrank said Reef's health problems include heart failure, a pre-cancerous condition in the esophagus, kidney disease, liver failure and diabetes, among others.
“He’s dying from all of those diseases, not just mesothelioma,” Hebrank said. “All of those are impacting Reef’s life and all of those were pre-mesothelioma.”
Hebrank told the jury that Reef’s deposition is unreliable because he is suffering from memory loss due to a number of head injuries. He said when asked, Reef didn’t know his age, the names of his nursing home and doctor, and when his two wives died or even when he was married to whom.
Hebrank said he didn’t believe Reef was exposed to asbestos from his client's product. He said the packaging Reef described – a white plastic bucket – wasn’t the packing Georgia Pacific used until the late 1970s, after asbestos was removed from its compound.
To bolster his argument, Hebrank said that Reef claims he sometimes picked up his materials from the Georgia Pacific store, but that the store didn’t even exist until after 1973, at which time warning labels were on their products.
“I have no doubt he used our products,” Hebrank said, “but he never used it when it had asbestos in it.”
Hebrank told jurors that there have been no studies linking mesothelioma to full-time dry-wallers and Reef only did the work part-time. Because there were no links between the two, Georgia Pacific, he said, didn’t place warning labels on the products until OSHA adopted permissible asbestos levels that required the labels.
“Chrysotile is unlikely to cause mesothelioma in any case,” Hebrank said, “not to mention Reef’s case.”
Regardless of the packaging details, Hebrank told the jury that Reef’s cancer was caused by asbestos exposure in insulation and his boiler work. He said Reef worked around insulation and insulated cement without a mask.
Hebrank told the jury that joint compound contains less than 10 percent of asbestos fibers compared to what people breathe in walking down the street, or background exposure. Whereas, the minimum insulation exposure, he said, is 30 times more concentrated than background exposure and the maximum is about 300 times more concentrated.
“Joint compound is not the cause of Reef’s cancer,” Hebrank said, “let alone Georgia Pacific’s joint compound.”
Madison County Associate Judge Steve Stobbs is presiding over the trial.
Madison County Circuit Court case number 12-L-2069