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Johns Manville’s Asbestos Legacy
The H.W. Johns Manufacturing Company was founded in New York in 1858 and used asbestos to manufacture fire resistant roofing. The Manville Covering Company was founded in 1886 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and began manufacturing asbestos heat insulation.
The two companies merged in 1901 creating the H.W. Johns Manville Company. The new company manufactured asbestos roofing and insulation and added asbestos automotive sheet cylinder packing, asbestos acoustical products and asbestos cement to the roster over the years.
Johns Manville’s history with asbestos includes the U.S. war effort. The government mandated that asbestos products be used to insulate Navy vessels in 1945, and the company produced many of these items.
After branching out into fiberglass in 1958 and moving its headquarters from New York to Denver, Colorado, in 1972, Johns Manville became a leading U.S. manufacturer of PVC pipe, asbestos cement pipe and fiberglass.Johns Manville Covered Up Asbestos Illness Data
For decades, Johns Manville sowed confusion and buried data about the dangers of asbestos, which causes many diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and asbestos lung cancer. Examples of this coverup involved doctors, the insurance industry and Manville’s own executive leadership.
In 1933, Dr. Anthony Lanza, a full-time employee at Metropolitan Life from 1926 to 1948, advised a Manville company physician against hanging warning posters informing workers of asbestos-related health risks. Lanza cited the potential “legal situation.”
At the time, Dr. Lanza’s own research found that after five to 10 years of exposure, half of asbestos textile workers showed asbestosis on X-rays. After 15 years, 87% suffered from lung disease.
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company also helped conceal the harmful health effects of asbestos by discouraging government inspections of a Manville plant. Met Life did so even though it knew of confidential, company-sponsored reports of asbestosis in 20% of workers.
Company Policy: Keep Sick Asbestos Workers in the Dark
In 1949, Dr. Kenneth Smith sent a memo to Johns Manville headquarters regarding seven asbestos workers whose chest X-rays showed asbestosis. He advised company president Lewis H. Brown and other executives not to share the test results with the workers.
Brown not only took the advice, he made it company policy to leave sick workers uninformed about their asbestos-related illnesses, even as they got sicker. Brown later hired Smith as company medical director, knowing the doctor would continue the cruel policy.
Johns Manville Declares Bankruptcy
In the 1970s and ‘80s, thousands of people began developing serious illnesses as a result of exposure to the company’s asbestos products. Many instituted legal action against Johns Manville.
As this evidence of a cover up emerged, the liability for Johns Manville became enormous. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1982.
Johns Manville Emerges from Bankruptcy
In 1988, the company emerged from bankruptcy and established the Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust, in the amount of $2.5 billion. The funds are available to cover compensation for people harmed by Manville’s asbestos products.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired Johns Manville in 2001, and today, the company produces insulation and construction products without asbestos. Its product line is now made with fiberglass and polyurethane. The company has won awards for its formaldehyde-free insulation, too.
Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust
Johns Manville was the first asbestos-producing company to file bankruptcy and to establish a trust to settle asbestos injury claims. At the time, it was considered a novel use of the bankruptcy law.
The Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust was created in 1988 to settle all asbestos-related claims against the company. It started with an initial amount of $2.5 billion. Since its creation, hundreds of thousands of victims have been compensated.
In February 2021, the trust’s payment percentage was increased to 5.1%, which is relatively common compared to other asbestos trust funds. The payment percentage is the percentage of a claim the trust will pay to ensure enough funds remain in the trust to compensate future victims.
At the end of 2021, the Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust held more than $642 million in assets. Since 1990, it has liquidated almost $5 billion in claims.
Johns Manville Jobs at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Many people in different occupations, such as firefighters, military veterans, miners, electricians and construction workers. were put at risk of asbestos exposure because of Johns Manville’s many products. The company also owned a number of mines and exported raw asbestos to other countries.
Johns Manville was founded for the purpose of creating asbestos products primarily for insulation and construction materials. The company’s own founder, Henry Ward Johns, died of “dust phthisis pneumonitis” — a disease believed to be asbestosis.
Occupations at risk because of Johns Manville products:
- Asbestos abatement workers
- Boiler workers
- Construction workers
- Drywall installers and tapers
- Factory workers
- Furnace worker
- HVAC Installers and repairers
- Insulation installer
- Military veterans
- Shipyard worker
- Steel foundry worker
- Textile worker
- U.S. Navy veterans
Johns Manville Asbestos-Containing Products
Popular Manville products that may have resulted in asbestos exposure of workers and customers range from wallboard, cement board and insulation to roofing, siding, paper and textiles, gaskets, packing materials and floor tiles. The company made a variety of asbestos products under many brand names.
Some of Johns Manville’s asbestos brands and products:
- 352 Insulating Cement
- 7M-13 Raw Asbestos Fibers
- Asbestoguard Adhesives
- Asbestotle Flashing
- Colorbestos Siding Sheets
- Corrugated Asbestos Transite Sheets
- Fibrocel Insulation
- Flexstone Asbestos Roofs
- Glasal flexboard
- Insulkote Weatherproofing
- J-M Asbestos Flexboard
- J-M Asbestos Movable Walls
- J-M Asbestos Wall Board
- J-M Aviation Products
- J-M Building Papers and Felts
- J-M Built Up Roofs
- J-M Encased Insulating Board
- J-M Insulating Cement
- J-M Marinite Fireproof Sheet
- J-M Transite
- Johns Manville Caulking Putty
- Johns Manville Colorbestos Shingles
- Johns Manville Rigid Asbestos Shingles
- Permastone Asbestos-Cement Flexboard
- Salem Asbestos Roof Shingles
- Stonehedge Architectural Panels
- Terraflex Plastic Asbestos Floor Tile
- Thermobestos Block Insulation
- Thermobestos Cement
- Transitop Asbestos Panels
- Vitribestos Sheet
- Vulcabestos Insulation
Notable Lawsuits Against Johns Manville
Because of extensive asbestos use since its founding, Johns Manville has faced hundreds of thousands of asbestos injury claims and lawsuits. As early as 1929, employees filed health claims against the company.
One lawsuit filed before the creation of the 1988 Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust, was Cavett v. Johns Manville Sales Corporation. James Cavett worked as a boilermaker for 40 years beginning in 1939. This put him into frequent contact with Manville pipe insulation.
Cavett testified the asbestos dust exposure was so bad it looked like “someone dumped a barrel of flour on you.” He further testified that Johns Manville supplied 80% to 90% of the insulation he used.
Experts at the trial testified Cavett suffered from asbestosis and lung cancer that exposure to asbestos caused. After Cavett passed away from asbestos-related lung cancer, his wife Mary was substituted as the plaintiff.
The jury awarded her $800,000 for compensatory damages and $1.5 million for punitive damages.
In another court decision, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York issued an order in 2004 for Travelers Insurance to pay $500 million to settle more than 600,000 claims against Johns Manville. Travelers insured Johns Manville from the 1940s through the 1970s while the company manufactured asbestos-containing products.
Consolidated Steel Shipyard
In 1944, workers from the Asbestos and Magnesia Materials Company, a subcontractor at the Consolidated Steel Shipyard in Orange, Texas, installed Johns Manville insulation. The installation created copious amounts of asbestos dust at the shipyard in Orange.
Years later when employees of the Orange shipyard developed asbestos-related diseases and filed lawsuits, Johns Manville maintained it couldn’t be held liable for their medical conditions. Officials at the company claimed they were unaware asbestos caused disease at the time of installation.
Johns Manville further claimed scientific knowledge and methods of research current at the time were not sophisticated enough to understand the health harms of asbestos exposure. Internal company documentation has since disproven these claims.
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