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February 02, 1990 - Image 57

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-02-02

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Staff Writer


tanding beside his
boss in the town of
Asbestos, Quebec, Dr.
Kenneth Smith stared at the
dust coming from a large
open pit at the Johns-
Manville Corp. mill.
It was the late 1940s and
Dr. Smith, then the com-
pany's assistant medical of-
ficer, heard his boss say,
"My God, why didn't we
build the town on that hill
over there instead of having
the dust going all over it?"
The men saw bundles of
fiber and other remains from
the mine rolling like
tumbleweed down the main
streets of the town. Dr.
Smith knew it was time to
put warning labels on pro-
ducts containing asbestos,
advising that it could create
airborne dust which is harm-
ful — sometimes deadly —
when inhaled.
In a deposition taken for a
lawsuit against Johns-
Manville on behalf of a man
who died from asbestos
cancer, Dr. Smith quoted his
superiors: "In general the
response was, 'Yes, doctor,
it's very interesting, very
probably factual. We recog-
nize the potential hazard
that you mentioned, the
suggested use of a caution
label. We will discuss it
among ourselves and make a
decision.' "
Some 30 years later,
Johns-Manville Corp. placed
warning labels on products
containing asbestos. Other
manufactuers followed the
company's lead. Yet it
wasn't until 1985, three
years after Manville filed for
protection with the U.S.
Bankruptcy Court due to
overwhelming lawsuits, that
the company removed all
asbestos from its products,
using fiberglass as a


n his Birmingham office,
attorney Michael Serling
is piecing together final
documents for claims on
behalf of 56 Israeli factory
workers from the Isasbest
plant in Nahariya.
Each worker suffers from
some ailment associated
with asbestos, a mineral
fiber extracted from rock
mined' primarily in Canada,
South Africa and the Soviet
Union. Known for its super
strength, asbestos is an in-
destructible product once
'used routinely in the United
States for fireproofing, in-
sulation and pipe covering.
"I refer to this subject as
industrial Holocaust," says
Serling, who has made a ca-
reer out of asbestos injury

cases since taking on Mich-
igan's first precedent-setting
case in 1975. "It's a slow
The Israelis are seeking
compensation from the
Johns-Manville Personal In-
jury Settlement Trust, a
fund of over $2 billion set up
in 1988 to settle claims
against the massive com-
pany once known as the un-
disputed leader of asbestos
manufacturers. Before it
removed asbestos from its
products, Manville was the
largest manufacturer of raw
asbestos to Isasbest, now
called Etanit.
With the aid of an Israeli
attorney, Serling hopes to
settle the cases within the

Michael Serling
next two months. An addi-
tional 51 asbestos injury
cases from the Israeli factory
are pending.
Of the workers fighting
the Johns-Manville trust, 36
suffer from asbestosis, a
degenerative disease which
scars the lungs, makes
breathing difficult and can
be fatal in its advanced
stages; 12 have
mesothelioma, cancer of the
lung lining which medical
experts say is always ter-
minal; three have lung
cancer. The remainder face
related ailments.
Serling accepted the case
after a trip to Israel in 1984.
Through a friend whom he
met while living in Israel for
a year in 1971, he met a
reporter who had been in-
vestigating asbestos.
"The reporter found scores
of deaths from the plant,
which employed nearly 500
people," Serling says. "Their
only hope was to plug them
into our system."
Etanit still imports
asbestos for insulation pro-
ducts. Workers wear protec-
tive equipment when handl-
ing the material.
Despite its use in other
parts of the world, strict
government regulations now
prevent U.S. companies from
using asbestos in the con-
struction industry. Small
amounts are still used
for brake linings in

automobiles, but asbestos
will be phased out of the in-
dustry within eight years
under a U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency mandate.
Johns-Manville is just one
of about 40 companies
targeted for lawsuits and in-
jury claims. Manville shock-
ed the nation when it filed
for protection in 1982 with
the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
At the time a $2 billion-a-
year manufacturer of insula-
tion products for the
building industry traded on
the New York Stock
Exchange, Manville claimed
lawsuits over asbestos would
be overpowering in the corn-
ing years. It took six years to
work out a plan to compen-
sate the estimated 130,000
claims filed throughout the
world against the company.
Manville, which emerged
from Chapter 11 in
November 1988, today esti-
mates its annual assets at
$2.2 billion.
Serling is one of a few
Michigan attorneys handl-
ing asbestos litigation cases.
He has devoted his entire
profession to asbestos litiga-
tion since the first case in
1975, recovering millions of
dollars for victims.
With offices in Birm-
ingham and Saginaw and a
staff of 25 including four at-
torneys, Serling boasts he
has enough work to
specialize in the relatively
new field of worker's com-
pensation from asbestos in-
jury. In Michigan, 1,500
asbestos injury cases have
been settled or are pending.
Of those, Serling's cases
number 600.
The first case netted
$200,000 in an out-of-court
settlement for the widow of
an asbestos insulator who
died from mesothelioma.
"I couldn't find anyone to
help me handle the case in
1975," Serling says. "I look-
ed to my seniors in the pro-
fession. No one knew
anything. So I started doing
On Serling's client roster
are occupationally exposed
individuals such as asbestos
insulators, pipe fitters,
boilermakers, carpenters,
plumbers, plasterers,
drywall handlers,
bricklayers and plant
workers in Michigan, a half
dozen other states and
Serling also is represent-
ing government, hospitals
and. private building owners,
who are seeking compensa-
tion for the costly process of
removing asbestos. Among
the cases is a state-wide
asbestos school class action
lawsuit in which Akiva Heb-
rew Day School is listed as a



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