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Asbestos Case Sets Precedent, Attorney Says

March 31, 1986

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ A former pipefitter may seek compensation for lung damage without proving which asbestos product he was exposed to, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The ruling opens the way to thousands of such cases nationwide, an attorney for the plaintiffs said.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the family of the late Arthur J. Roehling of Fairfax can use indirect evidence to establish that he was exposed to specific asbestos products in his lawsuit against manufacturers.

″Probably at least half of the people who are exposed to asbestos can’t name the products or don’t have any idea who manufactures the products. The judge had said under those circumstances they just have to lose,″ said Thomas J. Pearson, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

But the appeals court ruling ″probably will allow recovery in an additional 3,000 to 5,000 cases across the United States in which there would have been no recovery without this ruling,″ Pearson said from Houston.

Roehling’s case is the first that would allow recovery when the victim is unable to identify the product, Pearson said.

Robert L. O’Donnell of Norfolk, an attorney for the defendants, said Monday he would not comment until he had read the ruling.

Roehling worked as pipefitter from 1948-1951 at the Huntley Power Station, DuPont Cellophane Plant and Ford Stamping Plant in Buffalo, N.Y. He claimed he was exposed to asbestos products during his employment and developed mesothelioma, a disease associated with exposure to asbestos fibers, as a result. He sued 18 defendants.

After filing the suit, Roehling died, and his wife, Grace A. Roehling, was substituted as plaintiff.

The district court had ruled in favor of four defendants: National Gypsum Co., Owens-Illinois Inc., GAF Corp. and The Celotex Corp. The other 14 defendants previously were dismissed from the suit.

In its ruling, the appeals court agreed with the district court that Roehling failed to prove he had been exposed to asbestos at the DuPont and Ford plants.

The lower court had ruled that Roehling himself had to identify the specific asbestos products to which he was exposed.

But the appeals court said indirect evidence was enough to send the case to trial. It noted that two witnesses could identify what products were used in the area in which Roehling worked at the Huntley Power Station. The witnesses testified that asbestos products used there were manufactured by National Gypsum and Owens-Ilinois.

Defendants did not dispute the testimony of those witnesses, the court said.

″Roheling should not be required to remember product names some 30 years later when he had been a pipefitter, breathing the dust, not handling the products,″ the court said.

″Such requirement would, in essence, destroy an injured bystander’s cause of action for asbestos exposure. Rarely would bystanders take note of names of materials used by others.″

The decision allows a trial on Roehling’s suit against National Gypsum and Owens-Illinois.

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