|Sunday, October 05, 2003
Asbestos cases resemble family feud
By TAD DICKENS
THE ROANOKE TIMES
They were conductors, brakemen, boilermakers, electricians, carpenters.
They worked the East End Shops, Shaffers Crossing, the tracks and carshops, handling locomotives, cars, boilers.
Many of the railroad men at the old Norfolk and Western Railway had at least three things in common. They were exposed to asbestos in their years of work. They filed lawsuits against their employer. And their families were left to sort through ambivalent feelings about the company that took care of them in so many ways over the years.
George Brogan spent 42 years on the railroad with Norfolk Southern Corp., 20 as a roundhouse foreman.
"The railroad was good to us," said his son, Bob Brogan, one of five siblings. "We lived well, and they took care of us."
George Brogan retired in 1986 a happy man, and took to traveling with his wife. Some five years later, he heard from lawyers who wanted him to see a physician. The reason: He was part of a large group of railroad workers who had been exposed to asbestos.
"He didn't go looking for the problem," Bob Brogan said. "The lawyers came looking for him."
The elder Brogan had experienced some trouble breathing in later life, but he figured it was asthma, which his father had suffered from. The doctor said otherwise. The little fiber that people used to call a "magic mineral" had given George Brogan asbestosis, a lung-robbing condition.
The old man sobbed. "Look what they've done to me," he told his children.
"What I hated was, once he found out and was tested, his attitude toward the railroad really changed because of what they'd done to him," Bob Brogan said.
George Brogan and hundreds of other Roanoke Valley railroad men struck back, taking their old employer to court. In lawsuits filed in Roanoke Circuit Court, they have said the railroad knew that asbestos exposure could be fatal, yet stood idle.
In 1996, a Roanoke jury found that Norfolk Southern - the corporate descendant of Norfolk & Western - had done nothing to protect Brogan and two other men from the potentially fatal disease. The jury ordered the railroad to pay $150,000 to Brogan, $300,000 to Frank Leftwich and $200,000 to William Cawley. Two other plaintiffs in the trial received nothing.
Norfolk Southern appealed the judgments against it, and the cases were eventually settled.
The only previous asbestos verdicts in Roanoke came in 1986, when a federal jury awarded $300,000 to a worker, and 1987, when a jury awarded $9,000 to a former railroad worker.
In 1991 a federal court order consolidated more than 25,000 railroad asbestos cases across the United States and sent them to a single federal judge in Philadelphia. There, the cases were to be settled or sent back for trial if settlement talks failed, said James Jennings, a Roanoke lawyer who represents Norfolk Southern on many asbestos cases. Only one Roanoke case is still pending in Philadelphia, Jennings said.
That ruling left most plaintiffs to file their cases in state courts, where they have been piling up ever since.
Not until 2002 did another state court jury in Roanoke hear a Norfolk Southern case. In December, that jury found that the railroad was not responsible for a former employee's claim that inhaling the material sickened him.
The railroad, through its lawyers, has said that it knew asbestos was toxic in the 1950s, when it hired Brogan, Leftwich and Cawley. But its leaders did not think that workers were at risk of getting asbestosis.
George Brogan died in 1998 after years of heart problems.
"The heart got him before he had to get on the oxygen machine, like a lot of the guys," his son sad.
Years later, the family is still receiving checks from the settlement. And despite their father's exposure to the asbestos, three of the children work for the railroad today, said Bob Brogan, who also worked there for seven years.
"They take care of their people," including his mother, Bob Brogan said. "She'll be 76 this month. They still pay for her supplemental insurance, even though she's on Medicare. They really take care of her."