Military veterans and their families are barred from collecting damages from the U.S. government by the Feres Doctrine, even in the case of blatant neglect regarding asbestos exposure.
But they have another option: collecting from companies that supplied the toxic asbestos products to the military.
The family of one Navy veteran recently received a “substantial settlement” from 26 defendants that were listed in his complaint filed with the Supreme Court of the state of New York by the Weitz & Luxenberg law firm.
Although terms of the settlement are confidential, the original complaint filed in court asked for $10 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages.
The veteran died earlier this year from mesothelioma, the cancer caused by an exposure to asbestos. He was first diagnosed in 2010 when he was in his 80s. He traced his exposure as far back as 1950 when he first served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS California. He later worked as an electrician in Rochester, New York.
All but one of the manufacturers settled before the plaintiff’s case reached the courtroom. The final defendant settled after hearing the plaintiff’s evidence in court.
Among the 26 defendants were well known corporations like Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Ingersoll-Rand, Georgia Pacific, CBS, Trane, and U.S. Rubber (Uniroyal).
The defendants made the asbestos products, including the valves, pumps, turbines, floor tile and joint compounds that all contributed to the mesothelioma. Some of the companies exposed him in the Navy, while others were responsible for his exposure later in private industry.
Several expert witnesses testified on behalf of the plaintiff, and his taped deposition was read to the jury, along with a video depicting his pain and suffering from the mesothelioma.
“A case like this proves there is legal recourse for people who were injured by wrongdoing, whether they were in the Navy, or in private business,” said John Richmond, who served as co-counsel for the case. “And despite your current age, if you were the victim of corporate wrongdoing, those companies should be held accountable.”
The Feres Doctrine, which dates to 1947 and Army Lt. Rudolph Feres, prevents military personal from suing the government under the Federal Torts Claims Act, which does allow certain civil lawsuits.
The law has led to a perception, often among military veterans, that they have no recourse to seek compensation for illnesses caused during service to their country. An estimated 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases in the United States have been traced to veterans.
All branches of the military exposed personnel to asbestos because so many guns, ships, planes, barracks and other facilities were constructed with the substance or with asbestos parts. Veterans who left the military and took blue-collar jobs such as pipefitter, miner, shipyard worker, roofer or insulator increased their odds of asbestos exposure and of getting mesothelioma.
Although the dangers of asbestos have been known for nearly 100 years, manufacturers continued to produce asbestos products for decades, and the U.S. government continued to use those products in all branches of the military until the 1980s.
Cases today remain prevalent because of the long latency period of mesothelioma. It can take up to 50 years after the exposure before symptoms appear.
“Some veterans think they have no recourse because it (asbestos exposure) happened so long ago, and it happened in the service,” Richmond said. “These are proud Navy veterans. But they aren’t going after the Navy. It’s the private companies who should be held accountable for their actions.”