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Asbestos Suit Brings $33-Million Jury Award

April 04, 2002|LISA GIRION | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what is believed to be a record asbestos injury verdict in California, a San Francisco jury has awarded $33.7 million in a case involving a 60-year-old former electrician with a rare and incurable form of cancer.

Alfred Todak blamed his cancer on his exposure to asbestos on several jobs from 1960 to 1976, including work around insulation and boilers aboard Navy ships and around joint compound on construction sites.

In November 2000, almost 25 years after Todak quit the electrical trade to become an international nursing recruiter, he sought treatment for shoulder pain and learned that he had mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma, which most commonly begins in the lining of the lung, usually is discovered 15 to 40 years after initial exposure.

"This was a recognition of how terrible a disease this is and how really unfair it is to a guy like Mr. Todak," Gilbert Purcell, his lawyer, said Wednesday. "It's a recognition that people are still getting ill ... that we are not out of the woods for people who had exposures into the '70s."

Todak and his wife, Stephanie, sued more than 25 firms with ties to products that contained asbestos and to which he believes he was exposed. The award includes $22.7million for Todak's pain, suffering and loss of income and $11million for his wife's associated losses.

The Todaks will not receive the entire award, even if it withstands appeal, because 18 firms settled for a total of $4.2 million before the verdict, most of them before trial.

Foster Wheeler Ltd., the last defendant remaining when the case went to the jury, was held liable for 30% of the total verdict, or $10.6 million. The New Jersey design, engineering and construction firm said it will appeal the verdict. The company said Todak failed to present credible evidence that he was exposed to one of the company's naval boilers, as he had charged.

The largest jury verdict in a single-victim asbestos case came last August. A Texas jury awarded $55.5 million to a former home-building worker who blamed his mesothelioma on the asbestos in a Kelly-Moore Paint Co. joint compound he was exposed to on construction sites in the 1970s.

In California, the previous record verdict was $20.5 million awarded a year ago to a man who blamed his mesothelioma on a career in a Stockton plant that made pipe containing asbestos.

A fire-retardant mineral fiber prized as a cheap source of insulation and filler, asbestos has been used in thousands of products, from floor tiles to automotive brakes. More than 550,000 lawsuits have been filed since the 1970s against companies that made, used or sold asbestos or products that contained it, contributing to the bankruptcies of more than 50 firms.

The Todak decision was the first against Foster Wheeler, which has attempted to settle claims where victims show evidence of injury and exposure to a company product. It has fought claims from people who are not sick or cannot prove exposure.

Through the end of 2001, more than 300,000 claims against the company had been closed without payment, and 220,000 had been settled, a company spokesman said. Foster Wheeler had 110,000 claims pending at the end of the year.

Among the companies that settled with Todak was Viacom Inc., which picked up its asbestos liabilities through its acquisition of the former Westinghouse Corp. Viacom agreed to pay Todak $1 million. The entertainment giant spent $21 million on asbestos settlements and defense last year and disposed of about 60,000 claims, according to its latest annual report. Viacom had 106,000 claims pending at the end of 2001.

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