After a four-week trial, a King County jury found Volkswagen Group of America and its parent company, Volkswagen AG of Germany, liable for the death of Thomas Sorrentino. Bergman Draper Oslund is proud to have represented Mr. Sorrentino as he fought for justice.
Mr. Sorrentino repaired Volkswagen vehicles as a mechanic for United Volkswagen in Spokane, Washington, between 1972 and 1975. In his work, he frequently replaced brakes and clutches that contained asbestos. Asbestos exposure during this work led to the development of mesothelioma in 2020. While Mr. Sorrentino passed away in early 2021 from this cancer, he was able to make his voice heard in a deposition before his passing.
Asbestos was a significant part of motor vehicle components at the time Thomas Sorrentino worked as a mechanic.
Because of the friction involved in operating vehicle brakes or a clutch, the heat-resistant properties of asbestos made it a common material in these components starting in the 1930s. In fact, asbestos comprised as much as 40 to 50 percent of the material in a brake lining before its prohibition in the 1990s.
As a result, workers tasked with manufacturing, repairing and replacing brakes manufactured during this time were at daily risk of asbestos exposure. Regular wear on the friction materials in the clutch and brakes could create dust on the parts mechanics removed for replacement. In addition, mechanics needed to grind the brakes in order to fit them properly to the car, which created additional asbestos-containing brake dust.
This fine dust could easily become airborne, especially because mechanics in the dealership used compressed air to clear the dust from the brake drum. Today, the Environmental Protective Agency specifically warns against the use of compressed air when replacing brakes because of the risk posed by brake dust in the air.
Once asbestos fibers become airborne, nearby people, including workers, could breathe in this hazardous material. Asbestos lodged in the tissue of the lungs can cause scarring, chronic lung diseases like asbestosis or cancers including mesothelioma.
Volkswagen failed to warn mechanics like Mr. Sorrentino of the risks of asbestos.
Scientists had established a link between asbestos exposure and cancer as early as the 1930s, and a potential link specifically between brake dust and cancer was established by the early 1970s. Because of this danger, Volkswagen AG took steps to protect its German workers from asbestos through testing during the 1972-1975 time period.
However, the company failed to warn American mechanics like Mr. Sorrentino about this hazardous substance. During the trial, Volkswagen acknowledged that neither the components nor packaging identified the asbestos in these components as a risk. VW service manuals and bulletins also failed to contain an asbestos warning. Because of the lack of warnings, Mr. Sorrentino was powerless to protect himself from asbestos exposure.
On December 21, 2022, a King County Jury determined that the company was liable for Mr. Sorrentino’s exposure to asbestos. The jury awarded $5 million to Mr. Sorrentino’s estate and a further $750,000 to his son. While this compensation cannot undo the suffering that the Sorrentino family experienced, it does hold Volkswagen Group of America and its parent company responsible for the harm the company caused.