Mesothelioma Case Study: King County Jury Awards $5.75 Million against Volkswagen Group of America

The story of Thomas “Tony” Sorrentino, his battle with mesothelioma, and the subsequent legal pursuit against Volkswagen paints a poignant narrative of industrial negligence, familial resilience, and the pursuit of justice. Sorrentino’s relentless journey and the legal endeavors that followed exemplify the complexities and challenges in seeking accountability in cases of asbestos-related illnesses.

Mesothelioma's Silent Grip

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that primarily affects the mesothelial cells lining the lungs, abdomen, heart, or other internal organs. This cancer is predominantly caused by exposure to asbestos, a fibrous mineral once widely used in construction, automotive components, shipbuilding, and other industries. Due to its prolonged latency period, mesothelioma symptoms often do not manifest until several decades after exposure to asbestos fibers

Diagnosing mesothelioma can be challenging, as its symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue, are non-specific and may resemble other respiratory conditions. Moreover, the diagnostic process involves a series of medical tests, imaging studies, and often a biopsy to confirm the presence of cancerous mesothelial cells. Typically, the time it takes to receive a mesothelioma diagnosis can vary, but it commonly spans several weeks to months from the onset of symptoms to the conclusive identification of the disease.

Unveiling the Tragedy

Sorrentino’s life took a drastic turn when simple tasks, like moving a couch, became arduous due to breathlessness. His son, Jonathan, urged him to seek medical attention. This concern led to a mesothelioma diagnosis. Sorrentino’s career as a drug and alcohol counselor for young people seemed a world away from the typical occupations associated with asbestos-related diseases. However, after carefully reviewing Sorrentino’s occupational history, it was determined that his tenure working as a brake mechanic at a Volkswagen dealership in Spokane during the early 1970s was the cause of his disease.

This case is an important example of how large multi-national corporations must be held accountable for selling products that harm consumers.  Volkswagen Group sought out a market opportunity to expand its presence in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s embarking on a large marketing campaign to sell cars like the Beetle.  Those products contained deadly asbestos that caused people like Tony Sorrentino to contract cancer and die.  Rather than take responsibility for these harms, German Volkswagen came into Washington Courts and argued it had no contact with Washington and, therefore, no legal responsibility for the devastating harm to the Sorrentino family.  BOUL and the Sorrentino family relentlessly pursued justice to ensure Volkswagen was held accountable for Tony’s untimely death.

Legal Pursuits and Expert Counsel

The Sorrentino family sought legal guidance from Bergman Oslund Udo Little (BOUL), a firm specializing in investigating and prosecuting asbestos cases. Chandler Udo, their attorney, conducted a comprehensive investigation, tracing Sorrentino’s illness back to his employment at the Spokane-based Volkswagen dealership more than 40 years ago. Sorrentino explained that he learned how to replace brakes at United Volkswagen in Spokane – ultimately changing hundreds of brakes during his tenure at United. He would take asbestos-containing brakes and grind them with a brake grinding machine. He also used compressed air to blow out asbestos dust from brake drums. 

As part of their work on the case, BOUL decided that it was important to pursue the German manufacturer of the asbestos containing Volkswagen brakes along with its American subsidiary.  Because of the specific legal requirements under the Hague Convention and German law, it took many months to process service of the complaint on German Volkswagen.  The company subsequently fought vigorously to be dismissed from the case arguing that Washington courts had no jurisdiction over it.  The lawyers at BOUL fought these claims – even travelling to Belgium to depose one of German Volkswagen’s top legal officers.  Ultimately, the King County Court found there was ample evidence that German Volkswagen submitted itself to jurisdiction in Washington.  Both German Volkswagen and its United States subsidiary faced a jury trial in Kent, Washington. The case and trial culminated in a landmark jury award of $5.75 million against Volkswagen for asbestos disease liabilities.

Uncovering Asbestos Exposure

Sorrentino’s role at the dealership involved working on automobile brakes and utilizing an arc grinder that emitted asbestos-laden dust during brake jobs. Despite Volkswagen’s contentions regarding compliance with health and safety standards of that era, the jury’s verdict held the automaker responsible for producing unsafe products that significantly contributed to Sorrentino’s mesothelioma.

Legal Maneuvers and Challenges

The legal discourse against Volkswagen encountered various hurdles, including jurisdictional disputes and the automaker’s corporate defense strategies. After Tony Sorentino passed away from his cancer, his son Jonathan continued the case on his behalf. Sorrentino’s determination to confront a colossal corporation echoed throughout the trial, culminating in the jury’s decision attributing Volkswagen’s asbestos containing brake products as a substantial cause of his illness. 

In addition to German Volkswagen’s efforts to be dismissed on lack of jurisdiction, it also brought no documents to the trial.  Its corporate representatives testified to the jury that they reviewed numerous German language documents at the Volkswagen repository in Germany but brought none of those documents to Court in Washington.  The testimony in the case was that the repository could hold as many as one million documents.  

Volkswagen also argued to the jury that its asbestos-containing brakes did not cause Tony Sorrentino’s cancer because several epidemiology studies had not demonstrated the link.  BOUL and their experts explained to the jury that the Environmental Protection Agency had conducted a detailed review of this issue and found numerous limitations with the studies.  They also presented the voluminous body of scientific evidence demonstrating that the type of asbestos found in brakes – chrysotile – does cause mesothelioma in humans.

Impact and Legacy

Jonathan navigated the emotional and legal complexities, honoring his father’s memory and expressing a desire to utilize the compensation judiciously, especially for his daughter’s future. The profound impact of Tony’s altruistic spirit and unwavering commitment to family resonated deeply within his community.

A Reflection on Justice

The Sorrentino family’s unwavering perseverance and the legal triumph against Volkswagen serve as a testament to seeking justice in the face of corporate accountability. This case signifies the importance of holding corporations accountable for producing hazardous asbestos products, emphasizing the need for stringent safety measures and ethical practices.

Conclusion: The Legacy Endures

Sorrentino’s legacy endures as a symbol of resilience, altruism, and the pursuit of truth in the wake of adversity. His family’s resolute  determination and the legal victory stand as a reminder of the power of justice and the enduring impact of individuals standing up against corporate negligence.

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