Handling Asbestos Safely: It’s Not Just Good Sense, It’s the Law

Karen Marshall

Recently, the northeastern United States experienced both an earthquake and a hurricane. These events occurred days after a California court issued a reminder about the environmental dangers of asbestos — Villa Los Alamos Homeowners Assn. v. State Farm General Ins. Co., No. A128443, 2011 Cal. App. LEXIS 1079 (Cal. App. 4th Aug. 17, 2011).

The California Court of Appeals found that disturbing asbestos while scraping “popcorn” ceilings constitutes environmental pollution. The case involved a condo association which hired a contractor to scrap popcorn ceilings. Asbestos fibers were released into the air during the process. The homeowners association filed claims with its property casualty insurance company. The insurer denied the claims based on an insurance policy exclusion for environmental pollution.

The HOA ultimately spent $650,000 cleaning and abating the building. It filed lawsuits against the contractor and its insurer to recover its expenses. Although the HOA won a judgment against the contractor for most of its expenses, the contractor was bankrupt and could not pay. The contractor’s insurance company did not pick up the tab because the contractor’s policy did not cover asbestos-related injuries.

The HOA did not fare any better in the lawsuit against its own insurer. The trial court ruled in favor of the insurance company. In doing so, it considered state and federal regulations that declare asbestos to be a toxic pollutant. The California Court of Appeals agreed that the release of asbestos constituted environmental pollution that was excluded under the insurance policy. As a result, the insurer did not have to pay the HOA’s claims.

The lesson is this: If you are a business owner or homeowner affected by last week’s events, there are things to consider before pulling out your toolbox or hiring a contractor to repair property damage. Remember that asbestos was commonly used in building materials for many decades. Damaged roofing, insulation, floor tiles and, yes, even popcorn ceilings may contain toxic asbestos.

Also consider that exposure to these materials poses serious health hazards, like mesothelioma. These conditions can take years to discover and prove impossible to cure. Since asbestos exposure is a serious public safety concern, handling asbestos requires extreme care and familiarity with government regulations. Contact your local air quality or other environmental agency for information on properly handling and disposing of asbestos-laden materials.

The process of moving or containing asbestos is called asbestos abatement. Depending on the context and circumstances, asbestos abatement can be complicated and expensive. It is a good idea to consider hiring an asbestos abatement specialist that is trained and accredited in adhering to government safety standards.

The Villa Los Alamos case offers a cautionary tale. Before suing its contractor and insurer, the homeowners association had to answer to government officials. After the asbestos fibers were released, air quality officials removed the contractor from the project and ordered the association to perform an abatement of the building. The HOA hired a consultant to determine the extent of pollution and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cleanup.

It’s unclear from the court’s opinion whether the contractor first hired by the association specialized in asbestos abatement. Generally, hiring the right company to handle asbestos-containing materials from the outset can prevent huge cleanup expenses down the line.

It’s a good idea not only to look for a company that is accredited, but also to find out if the company has a history of violations. You should also find out if the company has sufficient liability insurance coverage.

Most importantly, if you are concerned that your property contains asbestos, take the proper precautions before potentially exposing yourself and others to dangerous asbestos fibers. The Mesothelioma Center offers general information on asbestos abatement and hiring an abatement specialist. Your local air quality or other government environmental agency can offer more guidance.

With months remaining in the 2011 hurricane season, also be sure to visit our Patient Resources blog for information on protecting yourself from asbestos exposure during storm cleanup.


Karen Marshall has more than 17 years of legal experience and is an attorney with The Peterson Firm. She has been contributing to The Mesothelioma Center since 2011 and writes about asbestos-related legal issues and blogs for Asbestos.com.

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