In the aftermath of World War II, the manufacturing industry in the United States began to develop more and more uses for hard, durable plastic components. A number of companies, including Union Carbide, developer of Bakelite; General Electric; Plastics Engineering Corporation (PLENCO); Rogers Corporation; and the Durez (for "durable resins") Division of Occidental were already or soon to be in the process of making massive quantities of plastic molding compounds for use in manufacturing everything from hard, black plastic telephone casings to frying pan handles to circuit boards and distributor caps. A large percentage of the plastic molding compounds made by Union Carbide and the others were reinforced with raw asbestos fiber, which came from asbestos mines in Canada, Russia, South Africa, and elsewhere. The mining companies themselves already had a few generations of experience with cases of asbestosis and cancer among their workers.
In the late 1950s, researchers from England began an intensive study of lung disease among the men who worked in the asbestos mines of South Africa, which were owned by wealthy interests in England. The researchers, led by Dr. Christopher Wagner and his associates, determined that not only were the miners developing malignant mesothelioma, but so too were their family members and even neighborhood residents. In 1960, Dr. Wagner published an article in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine documenting dozens of cases of malignant mesothelioma arising from exposures clustered around asbestos mines of the Northwest Cape Province of South Africa. The cases documented in Dr. Wagner's study, included a housewife, social worker and accountant. Similar studies conducted by researchers in the Canadian mines in Quebec were also turning up cases of mesothelioma linked to the mines there, as well as excess cases of lung cancer. By the early 1960's, no one in the councils of industry could deny that asbestos exposure had the potential to cause serious disease and death.
Beginning in 1958, Johns Manville Corporation, the largest miner of asbestos fiber in the world and a major manufacturer of asbestos-containing products, sold asbestos fibers to Rogers Corporation, a manufacturer of plastic molding compound. Beginning in 1969 or earlier, Johns Manville began to place warnings on the bags of asbestos fibers it sold to Rogers. These warnings were vague and inadequate to place the customer on notice of the danger of contracting cancer from breathing in the dust. In 1971, Johns Manville addressed a letter to a buyer at Rogers explaining new requirements imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding airborne asbestos fiber exposure. In 1972, Johns Manville amended the warning label placed on its bags of asbestos fibers, but even the new label did mention that asbestos exposure could cause cancer. It was not until 1977, eight years after Johns Manville first placed warnings on its bags of asbestos fiber, that Rogers placed any warnings on packages of its asbestos reinforced plastic molding compound sold to numerous mold shops throughout the United States. Unfortunately, but as one would expect, these warnings also failed to mention that asbestos could cause cancer. Johns Manville and other minors and suppliers of raw asbestos provided similar warnings to Union Carbide, General Electric, and the other participants in the plastic molding compound industry.
Under New York law, product manufacturers, rather than consumers and workers, must bear the burden of maintaining the expertise necessary to discover the dangers inherent in their own products and are under a duty to warn, which cannot be avoided or delegated to some other person or company. Manufacturers have a duty to warn about the hidden dangers regarding the reasonable uses of their products. Warnings must clearly alert the user to avoid certain uses of the product "which would appear to be normal and reasonable; the degree of danger is a crucial factor in determining the specificity required in a warning." (Lancaster Silo & Block Co. v. N. Propane Gas Co., 75 A.D.2d 55, 56, 427 N.Y.S.2d 1009 (4th Dep't 1980)). Consumers and industrial workers themselves usually lack the expertise to comprehend how or why a product operates, much less to detect whether or not a product suffers from a potentially fatal defect.
The claim that the companies which manufactured asbestos-containing products failed to warn the plaintiff about the potential health hazards of exposure to asbestos dust from their products is at the core of every asbestos personal injury lawsuit. Our courts have regularly made it clear that injured plaintiffs may not be deprived of the right to have a jury of their peers determine the liability of a product manufacturer for failure to issue an adequate warning; and this is true even in the presence of some government regulation. In our view, not a single manufacturer of plastic molding compound ever provided an adequate warning about cancer, and therefore companies like PLENCO and Rogers Corporation breached their legal duties to plaintiffs suffering from cancer as a result of exposure to their products.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, lung cancer or another asbestos-related disease because you worked with or around asbestos-containing plastic molding compound, please contact us today.