A Miami man who spent four months working and living around asbestos received a $20 million award from a Florida jury in September.

Plaintiff Charles Garrison spent a summer remodeling his cousin’s attic. The agreement was that Garrison would receive free housing in exchange for the labor. What Garrison didn’t bargain for was the deadly form of cancer known as mesothelioma, which he acquired as a result of working around the hazardous substance.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Garrison was a student at the University of New Hampshire. Like many college students, he was looking to live on the cheap. In an effort to help out family, his cousin, who owned a nearby apartment complex, offered up his attic apartment. The two struck a deal that in exchange for free rent, Garrison would remodel the apartment.

For part of the renovation, Garrison used a joint compound that contained asbestos. Asbestos is a fire-retardant mineral that was frequently used in construction products prior to the 1980s. Asbestos was largely phased out when it became linked to a variety of respiratory diseases. The asbestos within Garrison’s joint compound was manufactured between 1974 and 1975 by a company called Union Carbide. According to Garrison and his attorney, Juan Bauta, Garrison did not see any warning labels on the joint compound’s container or any indication that the product contained asbestos.

Due to these few months spent around the hazardous substance, Garrison was diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma in 2008. He sued Union Carbide to recover compensatory damages, which is money to repay him for his actual losses, such as medical bills. The case went to trial, and the jury found Union Carbide liable for Garrison’s injuries.

The Changing Nature of Mesothelioma Litigation

A decade ago, the majority of mesothelioma cases were related to asbestos-laden pipe insulation that dated back to the early 20th century. Today’s claims reflect a new era of asbestos exposure, as evidenced by Garrison’s case.

“By 1964, it was known that asbestos causes major health problems, so many companies that had formerly used the substance in their products began winding down manufacturing,” says John Langdoc, a lead trial attorney at Baron & Budd. “But some companies, such as Union Carbide, began using asbestos in other products, such as joint compounds and drywall. So it’s a very different landscape of defendants.”

These construction products contain smaller amounts of asbestos than the pipe insulation that predates them. However, according to Langdoc, this doesn’t diminish the danger of the substance.

The Latency Period

“People who were working with these asbestos-containing products from the 1970s and early 1980s usually have a longer latency period than those exposed in the 1940s and 1950s,” Langdoc says. “And it is this longer latency period that adds to the complexity of the case.”

This latency period, which is the amount of time it takes for an individual to develop symptoms of mesothelioma after exposure, can be as long as 80 years. Often individuals pass away from unrelated illnesses before the asbestos-related cancer becomes an issue.

“Mesothelioma is often contracted from asbestos exposure in an occupational setting,” Langdoc says. “With a long latency period, the sufferer is often already long retired by the time the disease shows itself. By this time, the company may have a different board of directors and different managers, and tracking down purchase orders and bills of sale can take a lot of investigating.”

The law takes this long latency period into account. The statute of limitations for mesothelioma cases begins on the date of diagnosis, not on the date of exposure.

Awards for Mesothelioma Claims Vary

Garrison’s $20 million award is not an uncommon outcome for mesothelioma claims. Those afflicted undergo extensive medical treatment and endure tremendous suffering.

“Mesothelioma is a horrible cancer,” Langdoc says. “It doesn’t create a ball. It spreads all along the lining of the lung, and it can metastasize and wrap around the heart or go up into the brain. Because it wraps around nerve endings, the patient is in constant pain. Eventually, lung capacity is diminished, and the patient suffocates.”

States vary on what a jury may consider when calculating compensatory damages. Common factors include medical bills, economic loss, and emotional suffering. Additionally, some states, including Florida, do not award mesothelioma sufferers punitive damages, which are monetary awards given to a plaintiff to punish the defendant for serious wrongdoing.

“There are a small minority of asbestos-cancer claims that are heard to verdict where punitive damages are considered and awarded,” Langdoc says. “And even when punitive damages are awarded, there is often a cap on the amount.”

By Keith Ecker

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