A Memorable Mass Tort Case Asbestos
Dallas, TX trial attorney Warren Burns talks about being involved with important mass tort asbestos cases.
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So, a very significant aspect of my practice on a daily basis is representing employees and individuals who’ve been harmed by exposure to chemicals or dust in their work or in their lives who are seeking compensation from their employees or employers or manufacturers of those products. Probably one of the most significant cases that we’ve handled at Burns Charest was on behalf of about 500 individuals down in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which is this wonderful, idyllic three-island group that seems largely forgotten by the rest of the United States. It is such a unique place. The people there and the culture is – it’s just this hidden gem in the United States that I kind of hope everyone doesn’t discover because it’s just an amazing place. But, for me, getting to go down there and work with and on behalf of these individuals is really a high point in my career.
All of our clients had worked at an oil refinery on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. This oil refinery was built back during the 1960s. Largest oil refinery, I think, in the western world, at least in the Americas. And oil refineries are dirty. They are dangerous places, as you can imagine. So the oil comes in, it’s refined into various products. That all involves incredible amounts of heat and machinering. Coming up in the 1960s, being built in the 1960s, state of the art at the time was just to wrap this whole thing, essentially, in asbestos. Now, very quickly thereafter, corporations and the government and individuals began to realize just how dangerous that was for American employees.
Asbestos is a product that – the job it does: insulating and either maintaining or shielding things from heat, there are very few things like it that are able to do that. The problem is that when a human is exposed to the asbestos, especially as it’s broken down into microfibers that you can’t even see. You take that into your lungs and it scars the lungs. It begins a process that really breaks down your lungs over time. It can lead to cancers. We’ve all heard that terrible term: mesothelioma, which is a death sentence for so many people who’ve been exposed to asbestos in the United States. But it can also lead to just degradation of your life as your ability to breathe in and take in oxygen is just undermined by this deadly dust.
So, our clients worked at the St. Croix oil refinery. They were exposed in conditions that no American should ever be subjected to. I represented an individual who was going to be the first case to go to trial in that group of plaintiffs. This was a young man who, when he went to work at the refinery, was young, healthy. He was a big guy, very strong, muscular. He went into this refinery after a hurricane had blown through. They were hiring people just off the street to try to clean it up. Well, they put him into this environment where dust is flying everywhere. He has no protection. He’s got no regulator. No device to protect him from this deadly dust. And over a very short period, he is subjected to enough of this asbestos that 15, 20 years later, he begins to feel the effects. And those effects are ones I think we can all understand and be concerned about. This is a very young, healthy man who lost 30 or 40 pounds over the course of 3 or 4 years, whose lung capacity, his ability to take in oxygen to his body, was reduced by about 40 or 50 percent. The effects of this exposure and the effects of this disease are just horrifying when you see them on an individual level.
So, we took those cases and we fought hard over a period of – from initiation to conclusion, five or six years as we went through the court system. A court system that’s very small and not very well-suited for handling 500 individual cases. We had to work with the courts there to come up with a process. Processes that we’re pretty familiar with stateside, but have not really had a home there in the islands before. But, we were really able to use our skills that we’ve gained in complex litigation on the stateside to really go down into the Virgin Islands and help resolve these cases. Ultimately, to conclude them in a way that benefited our clients.