In July 2014, Joseph Muir, age 57, was diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of his job-related and secondhand exposure to asbestos. Following a non-jury trial in October 2015, the Court issued a decision and verdict awarding Mr. Muir over $5 million in his lawsuit against a Canadian asbestos mining company, Hedman Resources Limited. The trial was presided over by Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Chimes. Hedman refused to appear and defend itself at trial despite being duly and repeatedly notified of the proceedings.
Mr. Muir brought suit against several companies responsible for the sale and distribution of asbestos-containing products used at the Durez Plastics plant in North Tonawanda. Before trial, the case was resolved with all named defendants, except for Hedman.
Hedman sold millions of pounds of raw asbestos to Durez for use in the manufacture of plastic molding compound. This molding compound was then sold and shipped to other plastics manufacturers throughout the country.
During the summers of 1976 and 1977, Joseph Muir worked at Durez Plastics. His duties included weighing and testing plastic molding compounds for moisture content and plasticity. Raw asbestos was used as a binder in the manufacture of these molding compounds, and the process of handling them caused asbestos fibers to be released into Joseph Muir’s breathing zone.
Mr. Muir’s exposure to asbestos was relatively brief, as he was employed for only eight to ten weeks during two consecutive summers. His father, however, was a career employee at Durez, and Joseph was exposed to secondhand asbestos dust and fibers unintentionally brought home on his father’s work clothes. These dusty clothes were shaken out and laundered at the Muir home. Asbestos fibers float in the air for long periods of time and have a tendency to settle throughout the home, on rugs, curtains, clothes, and furniture. The fibers are virtually indestructible. If not properly removed, asbestos fibers will remain in the home for years. Simple movements in such an environment can cause these asbestos fibers to become re-suspended in the air.
Former and retired Durez workers have been suing Hedman for the past thirty years. Hedman sold raw asbestos without warning about the harmful effects of breathing in the deadly fibers. At the time Hedman ceased mining operations many years ago, it had no income, no cash on hand and was facing mounting asbestos-related personal injury claims. The company had no assets except for insurance policies issued between 1967 and 1979 by a number of insurance companies providing coverage for asbestos personal injury claims.
At least until the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012, Hedman did settle hundreds of claims arising out of asbestos exposure. At that point, Hedman’s primary layer of insurance coverage was fully and completely exhausted. A group of insurance companies known as “excess insurers” should have taken over paying claims under the policies they issued in 1967 through 1979. However, these insurance companies and their insured, Hedman, saw an opportunity to help themselves while leaving their victims high and dry.
In 2012, Hedman’s CEO entered into a series of agreements with these “excess insurers” under which the insurance companies, some of the largest in the world, paid approximately $6.5 million dollars to be released from their continuing obligations to defend Hedman and to pay claims like Joseph Muir’s.
The Muir family contends that the “excess insurers” tried to pay off Hedman in order to escape its obligations to pay outstanding claims and future claims projected to reach several tens of millions of dollars over the next thirty years. What happened to the $6.5 million the “excess insurers” paid to Hedman under the deals reached in 2012? Not a penny has been paid to the Durez workforce. Hedman paid approximately $2 million to its own lawyers for arranging the deals and the rest of the money was used for business purposes unrelated to compensating its asbestos victims.
The Court’s verdict awarded Joseph Muir over $5.6 million dollars, more than half of which was allocated for medical expenses and lost income. At the time of his mesothelioma diagnosis, Mr. Muir and his wife resided in Connecticut, where he was employed as an engineer and project manager for General Dynamics Corporation. Mr. Muir’s cancer quickly spread, and he had to endure chemotherapy and more than a dozen surgical procedures, causing him to experience significant and unremitting pain and suffering. After battling mesothelioma for a year and a half, he died on December 15, 2015. He is survived by his wife of over 36 years, his parents, two children and five grandchildren.
Michael A. Ponterio, who represented Mr. Muir at trial, stated that, “Because of the unsavory agreements reached between Hedman and its insurers, the Muir family, in order to collect the Court’s verdict, must now bring a separate lawsuit directly against the insurance companies. These companies connived with Hedman’s CEO to put a few million dollars in his pocket in exchange for escaping from their obligations to Joseph Muir and other men and women who worked at Durez and who are likely to develop mesothelioma in the future. We estimate the limits of the insurance carriers’ liability to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. We intend to pursue them in a separate lawsuit to enforce the judgment for the money they now owe the Muir family, even if it takes us many years to do so.”