Decades ago, refinery and chemical workers in Southeast Texas went to work every day at a plant to provide for their families. Their day-to-day work entailed handling pipes that were coated with asbestos.
More than 30 years later, those workers have prevailed in a massive lawsuit against the maker of those pipes. But only 3 percent of those workers are still alive to collect their checks.
Beaumont law firm Provost Umphrey is currently finalizing checks and distribution paperwork for more than 2,000 asbestos clients and their heirs, thanks to a recent arbitration panel that awarded the clients $140 million.
The arbitration award marked the end of a case that was essentially the Planes, Trains and Automobiles of the legal world: a long-running case that twisted through 28 years of litigation employing nearly every available vehicle of civil procedure.
The $140 million award, which a three-judge panel handed down in late October, comes in addition to a previously agreed-upon minimum $38 million settlement that the plaintiffs were promised by the bankruptcy trust of the defendant, Pittsburgh Corning Corp.
Provost Umphrey represents a group of 2,299 plaintiffs who were diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, between 1985 and 1987. The plaintiffs contracted their diseases when they worked in approximately 22 chemical and refinery worksites in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. A majority of the plaintiffs were residents in the Jefferson, Hardin and Orange counties that surround the Beaumont area at the time the case was originally filed in 1990.
The outcome, according to plaintiffs’ attorney Bryan Blevins, is bittersweet, given the fact that only about 70 of the original asbestos plaintiffs have survived the process.
“One thing that’s really hard to get over is the fact that it took so long to bring this to finality,” said Bryan Blevins, a partner in Provost Umphrey’s Beaumont office. “But putting aside how long it took, the actual outcome for these clients was extraordinary given the nature of the proceeding they went through in 1990, which was the first of its kind.”
F. Lane Heard, a lawyer in Washington who represents Pittsburgh Corning, declined to comment on the litigation.
The litigation was originally tried in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas as a class action lawsuit in 1990 against Pittsburgh Corning Corporation and two other defendants. The plaintiffs prevailed when the court entered judgments totaling more than $1.3 billion.
One defendant filed for bankruptcy during the trial, and another settled after the trial but before the court entered the judgments, which left Pittsburgh Corning as the only defendant. The case worked its way through motions, transfers and appeals over the next decade, which resulted in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversing the judgments and sending the cases back to the trial court. The Eastern District transferred the case to multi district litigation in Pennsylvania, but two years later, Pittsburgh Corning filed for bankruptcy.
The bankruptcy filing put a 16-year hold on the litigation. The bankruptcy case resulted in the establishment of a $4 billion ‘PCC Asbestos Personal Injury Trust,’ which Blevins said is “the largest trust to be created in the modern era.”
Blevins and the team re-filed their clients’ claims once the trust was created, arguing they were subject to pre-petition liquidated claims, which are riskier to recover on but pay out more if a group of plaintiffs adequately prove.
Filing those types of claims required the bankruptcy to be re-opened so the judge could consider the matter. The bankruptcy judge ordered the PCC and the plaintiffs to go to mediation, where the parties reached what is referred to as a “high-low” settlement. Per the settlement, PCC agreed to pay a $37.9 million minimum payment, and the parties agreed to argue the issue of whether the plaintiffs are entitled to pre-petition liquidated claims before an arbitration panel.
They arbitrated the case in Washington, D.C., which resulted in the $140.6 million judgment on Oct. 29, which totaled the overall award to $178.5 million.
Beyond the litigation itself, distributing a large sum of money to such a large group of clients is also a challenge, Blevins said.
The low payment of $37.9 million was approved last year around the time Hurricane Harvey hit, which made it a challenge to track down all of the clients so they could approve the settlement.
“Harvey was a pretty significant disturbance so that created some problems with finding people,” Blevins said. “It took us probably seven or eight months total – it almost took about nine months to go from settlement approval.”
Blevins said his clients were diagnosed with asbestos as a result of a pipe covering that PCC manufactured that contained high levels of asbestos and were widely prevalent in essentially “any industrial setting,” including refineries and chemical plants.
The plaintiffs were also represented by Beaumont lawyer Glen Morgan of Reaud, Morgan & Quinn; South Carolina lawyer Joseph Rice; and New York University Law Professor Arthur Miller.