Case of West Monroe Paper Mill Demonstrates Changes in Mesothelioma Law

Louisiana law governing a victim’s recovery for on-the-job exposure to hazardous substances like asbestos has changed quite a bit in the last half-century. The amount a victim can recover – and the way in which they must do so – can be very different depending upon when the victim was exposed to asbestos. One particular case involving a West Monroe paper mill illustrates how critical the date of exposure to asbestos is to a victim’s ability to recover.

The case of Graves v. Riverwood International Corp., 949 So.2d 576 (La. Ct. App. 2007), starts with a fairly straightforward story. Walter Graves worked at a paper mill in West Monroe from 1943 until 1986. During the term of his employment there, he was frequently exposed to asbestos-containing insulation materials. His employer failed to warn him about asbestos, provide him with protective equipment, or educate him about techniques to minimize his personal danger. When Walter was later diagnosed with mesothelioma, he sued the owners of the mill because of the frequent and excessive exposure to asbestos on the job. Walter died shortly after being diagnosed. His family carried on the lawsuit.

The courts had little trouble determining that Mr. Graves’ employer was liable to Walter and his family for exposing Walter to asbestos. The courts found Walter’s employer was “strictly liable” because asbestos poses an unreasonable risk of harm to others. Furthermore, Walter’s employer had control and ownership of the dangerous materials. Finally, Walter endured “significant exposure” to that asbestos, which resulted in his injury – mesothelioma.

While this may seem to be an open-shut situation, another part of this story took place in the Louisiana legislature. During the time Walter worked at the paper mill, legislators changed the ways in which the law handled “occupational diseases.” Before 1952, a person could sue their employer and receive compensation in the form of damages. In 1952, the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act required that injuries caused by exposure to hazardous materials on the job be addressed through workers’ compensation payment, becoming the only way for employees to get compensation in the event of a harm. Employers are now immune from tort suits for such injuries. Thus, the difference in receiving a potentially large damages award or merely workers’ comp payments depends very much on when the exposure to hazardous materials was deemed to occur.

In Walter’s case, the court found that because he dealt with asbestos materials so frequently in his job beginning in 1943, he endured “significant exposure” well before 1952. Walter’s family received a damages award of $3,000,000 in addition to almost $40,000 for medical expenses. While they could have received reimbursement for medical expenses under workers’ compensation, Walter’s family would not have been able to seek such a large judgment against the mill’s owner. The place where Walter’s story intersected the development of the law was incredibly crucial in determining how much and what type of compensation his family could receive.

If you have questions about your rights related to mesothelioma or other occupational diseases, the attorneys at The Berniard Law Firm are always willing to answer your questions.