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400 former dockyard workers file US suits over asbestos exposure

The heirs of some 400 former dockyard workers have filed individual and class action lawsuits in the United States after the death of the workers from lung cancer following exposure to asbestos.

Karl Stagno-Navarra
20 February 2012, 12:00am
400 former dockyard workers file US suits over asbestos exposure after the death of dockyard workers from lung cancer

The heirs of some 400 former dockyard workers have filed individual and class action lawsuits in the United States, seeking their right to compensation in damages for occupational exposures to asbestos products while working - among other places - on US warships.

Most of the workers have died of malignant mesothelioma caused by the direct and proximate result of occupational exposures to asbestos products while working on US warships while anchored at the then HM Drydocks, which later became the Malta Drydocks.

The cases were filed at the US Bankruptcy Court of New York against a number of companies which provided the asbestos materials for the US warships while in dock. The companies, which have since been declared bankrupt, are still liable for damages under US law.

But the heirs are now challenging the US courts to order a trust - set up to compensate those who became ill from asbestos exposure - to include them after it wrongly concluded that their exposure occurred off US soil.

Under the guidance of the General Workers' Union, families of deceased Drydocks workers have over the past years been put in contact with American lawyers who accepted the cases and are filing their suits for compensation under US law.

Last Tuesday, another two cases were filed at the Manhattan district court of New York by John Tanti of Siggiewi, a personal representative of the estate of Nicholas Borg, and another was filed by the children of Joseph Balzan of Sta Lucia.

Nicholas Borg passed away in November 2010. He died of asbestosis; his disease and death each being caused as the direct and proximate result of occupational exposures to asbestos products while working in - among other places - US warships docked at the then HM Dockyard in Malta.

Joseph Balzan was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. His disease was caused as the direct and proximate result of occupational exposures to asbestos products while working as a pipefitter, steamfitter and plumber at, among other places, US warships docked at the then HM Dockyard, Malta.

Their heirs have joined a case together with several other former dockyard workers from Britain and Greece who are seeking compensation for diseases and death due to asbestos exposure on US naval ships. They are challenging the US courts to declare those responsible for issuing payment are unfairly discriminating against them because they aren't US citizens.

The allegations form the basis for a newly filed lawsuit related to the 1982 bankruptcy of Johns Manville Corp., a manufacturer of building products that used bankruptcy to resolve a wave of litigation by people claiming to have become ill from the asbestos in its products.

Each man (or his representative) filed a claim against a trust set up to compensate those who became ill from Johns Manville's products.

They say their illnesses resulted from their exposure to the asbestos dust and fibres contained in Johns Manville products found in the US naval ships' boiler rooms, engine rooms and other confined areas. They say the trust has wrongly concluded that their exposure occurred off US soil.

"In the face of both domestic and international law to the contrary, let alone common sense, the trust and the [trust's claims processing company] have each taken the position that active naval warships of the United States Navy, while being repaired, maintained, serviced, or refurbished at both civilian and military shipyards of other nations and the United States, somehow lost their sovereignty as territory of this country," the plaintiffs wrote.

The plaintiffs say the trust's failure to designate their claims as "standard" claims - the designation given to US and Canadian creditors, where the bulk of Johns Manville's operations were located - represents discrimination based on their nationality: "namely, that they are not US citizens".

According to trust documents, holders of standard claims have to prove their injuries meet certain criteria. If they can show this, they're entitled to a pre-set dollar amount. But "non-standard" creditors, as the plaintiffs are currently considered, have to submit their claims for review and payment on an individual basis. The lawsuit specifically asks the bankruptcy court to declare the plaintiffs' claims standard instead of non-standard.

Founded in 1858, the Denver-based Johns Manville emerged from bankruptcy in 1988 and was acquired by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in 2001.

Court papers show that as of September 30, the Manville trust has paid out more than US$4.2 billion to asbestos personal-injury creditors.

In 2010, Malta Shipyards were ordered to pay over €103,000 in damages to a family for failing to provide the required safety measures against cancer-causing asbestos, which led to the death of a 55-year-old worker.

A judgement handed by Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri, and judges Albert Magri and Tonio Mallia, who presided  the Court of Appeals, upheld two judgments previously handed down by a civil court,

The shipyards were held responsible for the death of Joseph Fenech after it was proven that the yards did not provide any protective clothing or masks.

Fenech died in 1997 from a serious case of mesothelioma - a lung cancer caused by asbestos fibre, the Court of Appeals ruled.