A judge has sanctioned Rancho Cordova’s Aerojet for falsely denying it ever used cancer-causing asbestos in rockets and missiles it has manufactured since the early 1950s.
Judge Robert Dierker of the Missouri Circuit Court in St. Louis barred Aerojet from presenting its key defense in a jury trial over the death of a 42-year-old woman who died of an asbestos-related-cancer.
The jury last Friday awarded a $5.1 million verdict in favor of the woman’s family in Missouri.
The jury was not aware Aerojet had claimed in court papers to have never used asbestos. But members of the woman’s family took offense when attorneys for Aerojet later conceded they were wrong, said Randall Bono, an attorney for the family.
“It’s absolutely nothing but a bald-face-lie. … They said they had nothing to do with asbestos. … They swore under oath,” Bono argued in a hearing outside the jury.
Attorneys for Aerojet said they were “incorrect” but denied they had deceived the court. Brian Sweeney, an attorney with Aerojet’s parent corporation, GenCorp, said Thursday the company had trouble finding documentation and former workers to verify the use of the toxic substance.
“We are talking about blueprints for intercontinental ballistic missiles that were classified and subsequently destroyed under orders of the Air Force,” Sweeney said.
Aerojet, however, reported it had 64,000 pounds of asbestos stockpiled at the plant in a 1988 inventory filed with Sacramento County.
The unpublicized, two-week trial brought to light a sparsely documented occupational hazard in the United States’ space race with the former Soviet Union.
Much attention has been devoted to the drinking water contamination across the country from the historic open-pit dumping and leakage of rocket fuels, industrial solvents and a solid propellant ingredient called perchlorate.
Lesser known are the health effects aerospace workers may have suffered from exposure to toxic fumes and substances, especially asbestos.
Valued as an inexpensive fire retardant, asbestos was used in some rocket motors and as an insulator in the rocket chambers and nozzles, according to the former Aerojet engineers who testified in the St. Louis trial. The Air Force eventually eliminated asbestos in rocket production.
In addition to this case, at least 14 former employees at the Rancho Cordova plant contend in California workers’ compensation claims they are suffering from life-threatening diseases as a result of asbestos exposure on the job.
The Aerojet case also spotlights a new generation of asbestos victims.
The deceased, Stephanie Foster, allegedly was exposed as a toddler when her father brought asbestos dust home on his clothing from work he had done in Aerojet in 1959 through 1963. The family lived in Citrus Heights at the time.
Foster was among what health researchers call a “third wave” of casualties from asbestos exposure. This first were miners who dug the minerals out of the earth and workers who sprayed asbestos insulation in ships, buildings and homes. The second generation included retired construction workers, pipe fitters and those who worked with asbestos products.
The third generation is made up of younger people, many of whom have no idea how they came in contact with asbestos.
Some learned they inhaled the toxic fibers on the lap of their father just home from work or in a laundry room where dusty overalls were washed.
Robert Foster was a farmer turned machinist for an Aerojet subcontractor, Automation Progress, about 40 years ago. He cut rocket motor parts to specification, including some containing asbestos, according to Ted Gianaris, an attorney for the family.
Foster, who has not developed any asbestos-related illness , tracked the asbestos home to his wife and three children, Gianaris said. Stephanie had barely learned how to walk.
“He’d give her and hug when he walked in the door, and the wife washed the clothing that got dust in the house,” Gianaris said.
Stephanie Foster learned in 1999 she had mesothelioma, an inoperable and almost always fatal caner of the membranes lining the chest. The disease, caused by asbestos fibers lodged deep in the lungs, typically appears 15 to 40 years after the first exposure.
She died last March. In the family’s “wrongful death” case, attorneys for Fosters’ parents, siblings, and her children asked Aerojet to produce “any and all asbestos -containing products” that the company or any related firm had at any time designed, manufactured or processed.
Aerojet categorically denied ever having such products.
Upon finding evidence to the contrary, Judge Dierker prohibited Aerojet from presenting the bulk of its defense, Aerojet attorney said.
He directed the jury to find that Foster was exposed to asbestos from Aerojet and that the company knew the hazards of the fibrous minerals at the time.
“Your honor, you’re basically gutting our entire defense,” said Michael Vasquez, a San Rafael attorney representing Aerojet.
Aerojet officials said they will likely appeal.
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