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Asbestos News

The Toll: 9,000 Sick or Dead
Part 3: Ground Zero - Hampton Roads

By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot
© May 9, 2001

Because little research has been conducted locally, the scope of the asbestos epidemic in Hampton Roads can only be estimated. Available data provide snapshots.
Between 1983 and 1992, 203 residents of the region died of asbestosis, according to federal researchers. Numbers for other years aren't available, but health officials estimate that there may be hundreds more victims locally, many of them still alive.

An estimated 850 people exposed to asbestos in Hampton Roads have died of mesothelioma, based on reviews of court documents and interviews with medical experts and lawyers who handle asbestos cases. And even though asbestos products have been banned from area shipyards for more than 20 years, mesothelioma is likely to claim hundreds of additional victims during the next 25 to 30 years.

Even larger is the ongoing death toll from all types of asbestos-related cancer.
At least 300,000 people worked in the region's shipyards during the peak years for asbestos exposure, from 1940 to 1978. About 4,200 of those workers could be expected to die of asbestos cancer, based on a formula developed by Selikoff and fellow researchers. They projected a shipyard-worker death rate of 1.4 percent.

That toll does not include many thousands of family members who were exposed when workers carried the dust home on their clothes. The number of stricken family members could equal or surpass the number of ill workers themselves, though their exposures would have been less intensive, and their death rates lower, than the workers'.

Local lawsuits also help tell the story:

To date in Hampton Roads, at least 9,000 people -- more than 90 percent of them shipyard workers, ex-workers and family members -- have settled or won legal judgments in asbestos cases, according to interviews and reviews of court documents. Of those, at least 2,000 were victims of mesothelioma and other cancers, primarily lung cancer. Most of the cancer victims have died.

Between Oct. 1, 1986, and July 30, 2000, a total of 99,869 defendants were named in Newport News Circuit Court in all civil cases that did not involve domestic disputes. Nearly three-fourths of those filings -- 74,216 -- were asbestos cases, reflecting the high volume of both defendant corporations and of workers claiming deaths and injuries from asbestos exposure.

Many thousands of shipyard workers who suffered from asbestos disease have not filed lawsuits. Some have moved from the area. Others have had the diseases misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. Some have simply chosen not to sue. And for others, the severity of disease has not justified litigation.

The onslaught of asbestos lawsuits has devastated the asbestos industry and its insurers, as predicted by Lloyd's of London's Rokeby-Johnson in 1973.

The litigation has had little effect on the Navy, due to immunity doctrines that generally prohibit workers from suing the government while allowing them to file for worker's compensation.

That has left only the asbestos companies for victims to sue. Legal efforts by those companies to force the government to share in the liability have failed.