Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Supreme Court hears ALCOA asbestos suit

Does a company have responsibility for people — other than its own employees — who are exposed to harmful agents from its facilities? That is the question the Tennessee Supreme Court tried to get its arms around Tuesday in Knoxville.
In late 2003, Maryville resident Amanda Satterfield, who was 23 years old at the time, filed a lawsuit against ALCOA Inc. and Breeding Insulation Co. in Blount County Circuit Court.

In her suit, Satterfield charged that she “was exposed to harmful asbestos dust and fibers from the day of her birth from her father’s use of asbestos products and inadvertent introduction of dust and fibers into their home and personal environments.” Satterfield had mesothelioma, a rare cancer directly associated with asbestos exposure.

On Jan. 1, 2005, at the age of 25, Satterfield lost her battle with cancer.
Doug Satterfield, Amanda’s father and the representative of her estate, continued with the suit after her death. With his 18-year-old daughter Amelia at his side, Doug Satterfield cried throughout the hearing in the Tennessee Supreme Court Building in downtown Knoxville.

Doug Satterfield hauled asbestos for ALCOA, starting his career with the company in 1973. He served in the military from 1975 to 1978 and then returned to work at ALCOA. His lawyers have maintained that Doug Satterfield was exposed to asbestos at ALCOA Tennessee Operations and that he brought home harmful dust and fibers on his clothes, resulting in Amanda contracting mesothelioma.

The lawsuit sought $10 million in compensatory and $10 million in punitive damages — although Satterfield has said the case is about justice and doing the right thing, not money.

ALCOA, represented by attorney John Lucas of Knoxville, argued that the ramifications of what the court is considering go far beyond this case, and could possibly create “an infinite universe of potential plaintiffs.”

Lucas referred to Satterfield’s allegations as the “conduit theory” — stating that, by assigning responsibility to companies for third-party contact with harmful agents, the court would define Doug Satterfield as the “vehicle” that transmitted asbestos into his home.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Koch Jr. asked Lucas how that differed from an employee who drove an ALCOA truck into a neighborhood and exposed residents to asbestos.

“How is it negligent for ALCOA to let asbestos fly out of a truck and not negligent for ALCOA to allow employees to go home with asbestos dust on their clothing?” Koch asked.

ALCOA made a similar arguments during a coal tar pitch-related lawsuit in Knox County Chancery Court last year, charging that it would open the “floodgates of litigation” and that Tennessee would become a “plaintiff’s Mecca.” That case is now proceeding with a class action certification hearing following the conclusion of discovery depositions.

Knoxville attorney Greg Coleman, who represents Satterfield, said the real question was “what did ALCOA know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it?
“Public policy should at least extend to the home,” Coleman said. “ALCOA may not have known if an employee would stop at the Waffle House on his way home from work — but they did know that the employee would eventually end up at his home.”
Satterfield’s case has been in the legal system for more than four years. Originally heard — and dismissed — in Blount County Circuit Court Judge W. Dale Young’s court, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed Young’s decision, reinstated the lawsuit and charged ALCOA with the cost of the appeal in April 2007.

The Tennessee Supreme Court Justices are expected to issue a written opinion on the case within three months. They can either return the case to Blount County Circuit Court, where it will proceed, or dismiss it entirely.

After the hearing, Doug Satterfield told The Daily Times, “It seems like ALCOA is trying to change the law to protect itself.

“It’s unthinkable that public policy shouldn’t protect the children of workers.”

Amelia Satterfield, Amanda’s younger sister, said she believed the hearing went well, but said her family was nervous about the court appearance.

Coleman said: “ALCOA is trying to reverse what the law should be. They’re saying the greater the magnitude of the harm and the higher the mortality rate, the less responsibility they should have. Where I come from in Ducktown, Tennessee, that’s called bologna.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court should issue its written opinion by early April.


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