Last modified: April 19, 2021
General Motors and Asbestos Parts
General Motors manufactured brakes, brake linings and clutch linings with asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that resists high temperatures. General Motors used asbestos in their products to control heat and reduce friction.
The iconic automaker also used asbestos in other parts that it purchased or manufactured including adhesives, gaskets and electrical parts.
When General Motors diversified in the 1930s, it added appliances to its line of products, including Delco-Heat boilers lined with asbestos.
Thousands of people were exposed to General Motors’ asbestos products. Many of them later developed asbestos-related illnesses and sued the company seeking compensation for their conditions.
By 2009, the General Motors was liable for an estimated $636 million in asbestos claims.
Development of the General Motors Asbestos Trust
Because General Motors produced and bought asbestos parts from third-party companies, such as BorgWarner, GM was named in thousands of asbestos lawsuits. Asbestos litigation pushed General Motors to file bankruptcy in 2009.
Thanks to a bailout from the U.S. government, GM moved through bankruptcy proceedings and reorganized that same year. The debt incurred by “old GM” was transferred to Motors Liquidation Company Asbestos PI Trust. This included all asbestos liability claims.
The trust officially opened on April 30, 2012, to handle asbestos claims. From 2012-2017, it paid approximately $31.9 million to more than 4,000 asbestos claimants.
On November 12, 2016, the payment percentage was set at 18.7% of a claim’s value. The trust was established with $625 million to compensate victims.
Asbestos Litigation Involving General Motors
The majority of asbestos-related lawsuits filed against GM stemmed from asbestos-containing brake linings and clutch facings.
$2 Million Awarded to Former Mechanic
In one claim against GM, auto mechanic Roland Leo Grenier alleged that asbestos from brake linings and clutch facings manufactured by GM and Ford Motors caused him to develop mesothelioma in 2005.
Grenier, who was a mechanic for 36 years, said he was exposed to chrysotile asbestos while grinding, repairing and removing brakes and clutches.
At the trial, expert witness Dr. Richard A. Lemen testified that according to his study of more than 165 cases, friction products containing asbestos can cause mesothelioma. The jury awarded $2 million to Grenier. General Motors was found 70% liable for the plaintiff’s damages.
Warehouse Worker Awarded $30 Million
In another case, warehouse worker Mark Buttitta was exposed to asbestos while working at a GM warehouse when he handled brakes and clutches.
Prior to working at the warehouse, his father worked at another GM warehouse and brought home asbestos fibers on his clothing. Buttitta was diagnosed with mesothelioma from primary and secondary asbestos exposure.
He filed a lawsuit against GM and a jury awarded his family more than $30 million in damages.
General Motors Asbestos Products and Workers at Risk
The asbestos-containing products manufactured or sold by General Motors included:
- Automatic transmissions
- Brake linings
- Brake shoes for locomotives
- Clutch linings
- Delco-Heat brand boilers and appliances
- Disc brakes
- Drum brakes
- Frigidaire brand appliances
- Manual transmissions
GM factories that used asbestos parts and materials contained high levels of asbestos dust. This put factory and assembly workers at risk of asbestos exposure.
Other occupations at risk of exposure to GM’s asbestos products include auto mechanics, engineers, machinists, warehouse employees, auto parts salespeople, railway brakemen, boiler workers, appliance repairers and installers.
Consumers were also at risk of exposure to GM’s asbestos products. The parts were readily available at do-it-yourself auto parts stores and were handled by employees and customers. Consumers may have also encountered asbestos insulation in Frigidaire and Delco appliances such as boilers and ovens.
In 2016, an Epidemiology and Health study from Sweden calculated asbestos-related cancer rates for different occupations. According to the research, former mechanical engineers and technicians are 67% more likely to develop mesothelioma than the general population.
General Motors History
William C. Durant, a pioneer of the U.S. auto industry, bought Buick Motors in 1904 and conceived of a business model that combined several automakers under one parent company. He purchased more than 20 companies, including Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Chevrolet, to establish General Motors in 1908.
Company headquarters were in Flint, Michigan, and GM was set up to compete and beat rival Ford Motor Company. As cars became mainstream products, GM flourished and expanded its business portfolio by acquiring auto parts manufacturers such as Hyatt Roller Bearing.
The company also bought business in other industries including Frigidaire. Another appliance company bought by GM was Delco Appliance Corporation. Delco produced boilers and even made products for the armed forces. The company’s product line from the 1930s includes the Delco-Heat Harmonized Boiler, which featured air-cell asbestos insulation.
In April 2010, General Motors announced it had paid back the $49.5 billion received from the government in 2009. In 2018, GM reported a full-year income of $8.1 billion.
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