'Like herding turkeys' – specialist’s take on gathering exposure history and ranges in asbestos trial

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Nov 15, 2013


After several days of witness testimonies and pulling from box after box of evidence, Georgia Pacific maintains that it is not responsible for a Kansas carpenter’s asbestos-related mesothelioma.

At trial on Thursday in Madison County Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs' courtroom, both parties read from plaintiff James Reef’s discovery deposition taken in April.

Reef filed his suit 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.

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.

Georgia Pacific attorney Jeff Hebrank began by stating Reef’s inconsistent description of joint compound packaging. Hebrank said that Reef started out saying the buckets of drywall mud he used were made of plastic, but he could not remember their color. Reef then said they were white and had a clear liner, but could not verify any labels, according to Hebrank.

Reef also described the backs of dry compound as clear, five-gallon bags and said he assumed all products were manufactured by the defendant because he purchased them at the Georgia Pacific store, according to Hebrank.

The inconsistency continued, Hebrank said, as Reef was questioned about other jobs he worked on over the years and who manufactured those products. Reef either couldn’t answer or assumed it was Georgia Pacific, Hebrank said.

Plaintiff attorney Carson Menges followed Hebrank, also reading from Reef’s discovery deposition.

Menges pointed out that Reef worked on thousands of walls over the years, but was able to decipher when the packaging was metal versus plastic when the question was clarified for him.

Menges quoted from the deposition: "I would say yes,” Reef said, “years ago when we first used joint compound, it came in metal buckets.”

Another defense witness, Dr. Mark Roberts, testified about the likelihood that Reef’s illness surfaced as a result of his exposure to asbestos in insulation rather than joint compound.

Roberts is a medical doctor trained to determine if conditions are caused by work experience or the environment.

Specifically, Roberts was asked to examine Reef’s exposure history to determine if his mesothelioma was related to his work with joint compound.

Roberts testified that Reef’s illness resulted from his exposure to insulation, arguing that insulation contains amphibole asbestos, which are long thin fibers and are more dangerous to the body. He said amphibole fibers can stay in the system for decades while Chrysotile fibers are only present for several weeks up to a few months. The longer amphibole fibers, anywhere from 100 to 500 times more potent, get hung up in the lungs, while less potent fibers are expelled naturally, he said.

“There’s no increased risk of mesothelioma” as a result of working with joint compound, Roberts said.

However, he described the grueling task of gathering the range of exposure as “kind of like herding turkeys.”

Plaintiff co-counsel Ethan Flint questioned Roberts next pointing out that at least 13 of the studies Roberts relied on to come up with his conclusion were written by Georgia Pacific-controlled witnesses.

Roberts’ report, Flint said, was based solely on medical records, considered risk assessment, epidemiology, potency, factors and case studies, but did not include any physical evidence or exams of Reef performed by Roberts. Therefore, he argued Roberts' report should be considered inconclusive.

Flint also asked whether Roberts was aware that Georgia Pacific’s joint compound allegedly contained termolite asbestos fibers, which are part of the amphibole type fibers and would make the compound more potent than they were led to believe.

On re-direct, Hebrank asked Roberts if Reef was never exposed to the insulation and whether Roberts would conclude that joint compound could have caused Reef to develop mesothelioma. Roberts  said no.

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