Plaintiff’s attorney Carson Menges on Tuesday told Madison County jurors that the amount of asbestos fibers contained in a can of Georgia Pacific joint compound used decades ago - if laid end-to-end - would stretch past the Red Planet.
The trial - a rare occurrence in the nation's busiest asbestos court - is playing out in Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs’ court.
Plaintiff James Reef of Kansas filed the lawsuit in December 2012 against dozens of companies that made, sold or distributed asbestos-containing products including Georgia Pacific, the only defendant to take the case to trial. Most of the hundreds of cases set for trial in any given year settle before jurors are given a chance to decide.
Reef, 69, began carpentry in 1965 at the age of 19 and claims he spent 50 percent of his time working on drywall using Georgia Pacific’s joint compound paste.
Reef alleges the joint compound he used contained asbestos, which led to his mesothelioma, diagnosed in October 2012.
Witness Anne Ksionzyk, a Georgia Pacific witness, took the stand and was first questioned by Menges.
Ksionzyk, a Georgia Pacific employee since 1982, said she reviewed 12-15 boxes of Georgia Pacific asbestos documents collected from the early 1980s, verifying that Georgia Pacific made joint compound with asbestos beginning in 1965.
She testified that a 3.2 pound can of ready mix compound contained roughly 1.2 pounds of asbestos.
Menges calculated that one pound of asbestos would stretch 451 million miles if the fibers were placed end-to-end, a distance well past the planet Mars.
Representing Georgia Pacific, attorney Jeff Hebrank of HeplerBroom questioned Ksionzyk following Menges. He had her verify her role with the company and why she was chosen to testify.
She said she is involved in product certification with third party agencies to ensure Georgia Pacific products meet building requirements and said she worked specifically with joint compound for 20 years.
From her extensive experience with joint compound, knowledge of records and familiarity, she was chosen to testify on the defendant’s behalf. Because of her work in the labs, evaluating small batches of products, she is familiar with the Gypsum division of products, including the joint compound, she said.
Hebrank showed the jury a letter Georgia Pacific Vice President Glen Wilson wrote to a company manager on May 7, 1970, asking him to initiate a program concerning the use of asbestos in joint compound. Wilson mentioned the possibilities of asbestos-related dangers and asked the manager to take the risk into consideration. Asbestos was a primary component in joint compound.
“To replace that required an evaluation of materials they had not used before,” Ksionzyk said.
She confirmed that there had been no reports of carpenters working with dry wall getting sick and no other company created non-asbestos containing joint compounds at that time. She said no one indicated that asbestos was highly hazardous.
Georgia Pacific began labeling its dry mix first, because the ready mix didn’t require a label as long as the fibers were bound with a liquid. That changed, she said, when “we believe it was in our best interest to begin labeling” the joint compound before the defendant’s competitors added warning labels.
“We could find an asbestos reformulation before our competitors,” Ksionzyk said. “That would certainly give us an edge for our consumers.”
Georgia Pacific ceased production of asbestos containing products in May 1977, more than a year before it was banned.
Also on the stand on Tuesday was plaintiff witness Dr. Thomas Selders, an industrial hygienist from Austin, Texas.
Selders created a report based on Reef’s exposure to asbestos, taking complete exposure into account rather than singling out the joint compound. Selders addressed background exposure, fibers traveling on his clothing, joint compound, insulation and more.
“Don’t look for asbestos in one location,” Selders said under questioning by Menges. “It was used in a variety of items.”
Selders said asbestos fibers can travel hundreds of meters, and when Reef wasn’t directly involved in dry wall work, he was around those who were.
He even addressed Reef’s clothing as a carrier of asbestos, because it is “frequently” overlooked.
“’You’d be dusty head to toe and all over your face,’” Selders recalled Reef saying about carrying those fibers with him back home and in his car.
Hebrank followed Menges, questioning the specific articles and studies Selders used in his report. But Selders remained steadfast that the type and situation surrounding the asbestos exposure doesn’t matter. Exposure to asbestos regardless of the situation is harmful.
“Whether it’s in a factory or somewhere else,” Selders said, “asbestos is asbestos.”
Selders verified that he did not do the specific calculations to determine how much exposure Reef was subject to in his different projects.
Hebrank introduced a 1975 study addressing dry walling that recommended removing asbestos from products immediately. He said that Georgia Pacific had already begun their removal program five years prior to the study.
He also also brought up Chrysotile asbestos, a form of asbestos at the center of debate over whether it is actually carcinogenic.
Selders agreed that such debates exist, but argued that studies have linked the two and it is just as likely to cause diseases as asbestos in general is unhealthy.
When Hebrank observed that the articles relate to cencer resulting from products other than joint compound, Selders responded, “No, all of these articles relate to people getting cancer from asbestos.”
Menges briefly followed up pointing out that the key word is asbestos, regardless of the type.