August 20, 1981 by Jackie Klien
Southfield attorney Michael Serling will go down in Michigan history for winning the first jury trial in which a worker claimed that asbestos exposure made him ill. A Wayne County Circuit Court jury last week awarded $250,000 in damages to Serling’s client, Robert Simmers Jr, 59, of Livonia.
In awarding damages, the six-member jury found that Johns Manville Corp. – once the nation’s largest producer of asbestos – was negligent in failing to warn Simmers of the dangers of working with asbestos.
Simmers testified that from 1945 to his retirement in 1979, he was a construction worker whose job involved wrapping asbestos insulation on pipes, boilers, steam turbines and hot water tanks.
After repeated bouts of painful coughing, Simmers said he was admitted to a hospital in Ann Arbor in 1976. His condition was diagnosed as asbestosis, scarring of the lungs by asbestos fibers.
The disease, which causes shortness of breath, is incurable.
Serling, who specializes in asbestos cases, said he and co-counsels Robert E. and Robert P. Sweeney of Cleveland, convinced the jury that Simmers is a pulmonary cripple and faces a high risk of cancer.
Key testimony came from a prior asbestos case in which the late Dr. Kenneth Smith testified. Smith was John Manville’s medical director from 1952-1966. Serling said the evidence showed that corporation officials knew in the 1930s that asbestos dust could cause worker health problems but delayed warning workers until 1964.
“About 80-100 similar cases are pending in Michigan,” Serling said. “Thousands of workers are exposed to asbestos. They include insulation and auto mechanics, pipefitters, and boiler makers.
“They work in factories, power plants, factories, schools, and homes. Tradesmen are large users of bagged and boxed asbestos products.
“Manufacturers knew the dangers of working with asbestos from medical studies conducted from 1920 through 1940. But it wasn’t until 1964 that manufacturers put warning labels on asbestos containers.
“Asbestos has never been outlawed, but in many instances, it’s being replaced by fiberglass. When manufacturers fail to share knowledge of dangers of asbestos, the public is at risk.”
With warnings, workers can at least take precautions such as wearing masks or respirators, Serling said, or they can choose another profession.
Asbestos mixed with water is applied to ceilings, pipes, and boilers as a fire retardant and insulator to keep heat in, Serling said.
The Southfield School District is spending $409,000 to eliminate any asbestos hazards from 11 schools. Possible cancer-causing particles in ceilings and on pipe and boiler coverings are being coated with sealants or removed.
When ceilings are disturbed and particles come loose, they can fall on school children through ducts and heating systems, Serling said. Asbestos fibers are easy to inhale or ingest. That’s why ceilings have to be airtight, he said.
“Asbestos may be found in the systems of school children in 20 or 30 years, Serling said. “But it’s not likely they’ll be in danger from a couple of doses of asbestos. Guys who are on the field every day for 25 years and are exposed to heavy doses of asbestos are in real trouble.”
Besides asbestosis, other diseases caused by exposure to asbestos are lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare, hard-to-diagnose malignancy of the lining of the lung that can’t be treated by surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, Serling said.
Onset of the disease – which killed actor Steve McQueen – can be 25-30 years from initial exposure to asbestos, Serling said.
Chances are 11 of 100,000 non-asbestos workers who don’t smoke will contract one of the three lung diseases, Serling said. The risk for smokers is 58 out of 100,000.
But 110 of 100,000 non-smoking asbestos workers are in danger and 600 of 100,000 smoking asbestos workers are likely to get a lung disease, he said.
“This was known in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1978 that companies printed labels saying “Smokers exposed to asbestos at high risk,” Serling said.
A doctor who screened persons exposed to asbestos discovered a woman who washed the clothes of her husband – an asbestos worker – died of mesothelioma, Serling said. Persons living near mines are also affected.
Serling started to specialize in asbestos cases in 1975 when the widow of a man who died of mesothelioma came to him after seeing five attorneys who said she had no case. And there were no precedents.
Serling contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the International Asbestos Union.
“I discovered there were a handful of cases in the country against companies failing to share their knowledge of the dangers of asbestos and withholding information,” he said. “I took the woman’s case and in 1978 and got a settlement.
“Manufacturers have been taking steps to warn workers in their own plants and installing better ventilation. I think this was a long time coming because manufacturers didn’t want to create fear or engage in costly procedures. They were worried about compensation rates.
“But the average public may not be as well informed. I wouldn’t want to be around an old building being demolished with dust flying around on a windy day. And I wouldn’t want my wife to use a hair drier lined with asbestos.”
150+ Years Combined Experience
The Serling & Abramson law firm was founded in 1970 by Michael B. Serling. Mr. Serling was the first attorney in Michigan to file a wrongful death action on behalf of the family of a mesothelioma victim. In 1975, a young widow of an asbestos insulator contacted Mr. Serling concerning her husband who had died at age 52. She was left with two young children and was trying to raise them on a $4 per hour job. The extremely gratifying feeling of success in prosecuting the case and securing a sizable settlement for the widow and her children inspired Mr. Serling to continue this work.
Michael soon realized that it was more than just asbestos insulators who were falling victim to asbestos-related diseases. It soon became apparent that mesothelioma and lung cancer were occurring in virtually every building trade and many industrial settings. He dedicated his career to securing justice for all victims affected by asbestos exposure. Today, over 50 years later, Serling and Abramson are still representing victims of asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.