CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Legal Newsline) -- The battle between experts proffering very different opinions about how much asbestos pipe fitters who removed asbestos-covered gaskets decades ago came into contact with while doing so resumed Monday in the bankruptcy trial of Garlock Sealing Technologies.
Plaintiffs' attorneys called William Longo, a material scientist with a Ph.D. in the field, to speak about reports he authored examining the possible asbestos exposure of pipe fitters removing Garlock-made gaskets. Longo, who is employed by the consulting firm Materials Analytical Services, testified that the standard techniques many pipe fitters used to remove asbestos-covered gaskets that became wedged to flanges released clouds of asbestos dust workers likely inhaled.
The bankruptcy trial, which began last week at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of North Carolina and is expected to last three weeks, will determine the estimated liability of the company for current and future asbestos claims.
One of the central questions that will help establish how much Garlock will owe the claimants revolves around whether Garlock products, many removed decades ago, and no other sources of asbestos, led to cases of mesothelioma.
To test possible levels of asbestos exposure pipe fitters came into contact with while performing their job, Longo attempted to recreate the conditions of their work environment in a controlled setting by hiring a former pipe fitter to remove Garlock gaskets from flanges. Longo asked the pipe fitter to remove them "how you would do it in the field." He asked the pipe fitter to use the same kinds of tools he used in the past and to incorporate the same techniques. While performing the experiment, the pipe fitter would often rely on a hammer or a putty knife to help knock out gaskets that began fusing with the flanges they were attached to. Longo then attempted to measure the amount of dust particles these activities generated.
In a video recording of the pipe fitter performing the experiment that played during his testimony, the pipe fitter can be seen hammering as billows of dust bathed in what he described as Tyndall lighting, rose like smoke into the air. Under current OSHA regulations, employers must ensure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of asbestos in excess of 0.1 f/cc in an eight-hour time-weighted average. Longo reported that in several studies, the gasket removing would result in averages anywhere between 13.8 f/cc of dust to 29.5 f/cc, though not all of that dust would have been asbestos.
During testimony Longo gave to help establish his credentials as an expert in material science and asbestos, he said his company has worked for federal government agencies as well as private sector corporations such as IBM. Parts of his government work included helping the Environmental Protection Agency develop a testing protocol for asbestos.
On cross examination, Garlock attorneys questioned Longo about another asbestos trial in Lamar County, Texas, where a judge called Longo's report "junk science," excluding it and all his testimony.
Longo countered that after the trial, the exact same study that was excluded was published in a leading industrial hygiene journal. He contended there was nothing wrong with the study, and that the problem likely arose because he must have "did a horrible job explaining" the results.
Garlock attorneys further sought to undermine Longo's testimony by raising multiple errors in data in his reports. They also pointed out that the pipe fitter Longo hired for his study used a grinder with an 11,000 RPM motor to remove the gaskets. The actual grinders that would have been available when the pipes were being removed would probably have motors with no more than 3,000 RPMs. Longo didn't argue that these errors existed. Although embarrassing, Longo said the mistakes in his study were mostly because of typos and that the integrity of the results were accurate.
Following Longo's testimony, attorneys for the claimants called a retired Navy consultant who previously supervised pipe fitters at shipyards while he was still a member of the service. James Shoemaker testified that he worked on 58 different sea vessels including air craft carriers and submarines. He estimated he supervised between three to four thousand pipefitters during his career. He testified he witnessed thousands of gasket installations and removals, and that the technique demonstrated in Longo's video accurately reflected what he often saw on the job in the 1970s and 1980s.
Often pipefitters had to hammer and chisel away at gaskets because they rarely could be removed easily and intact, he said. He said the average pipe fitter would work on about 250 gaskets annually.