(Tacoma) — On August 5, 2021, a unanimous Pierce County jury awarded $11.2 million to Dennis Woodruff, a 75-year-old Tacoma man suffering from terminal mesothelioma. It is one of the highest jury awards of its kind in Washington state history. The trial began in June and the verdict was delivered on August 5 in Pierce County Superior Court. Mr. Woodruff worked with trial attorneys Chandler Udo and Justin Olson at Bergman Oslund Udo Little, who successfully obtained the $11.2 million verdict.
Zidell Explorations was found to be negligent and to have caused his deadly cancer when Woodruff worked for its sister company dismantling World War II Navy ships at the Port of Tacoma between 1970 and 1973. The Port of Tacoma was also found negligent but did not cause the injury, so Zidell Explorations will alone pay the award to Woodruff.
While working at Zidell Dismantling in Tacoma, Mr. Woodruff was repeatedly exposed to hazardous levels of asbestos from insulation ripped off during the ship dismantling process. As a laborer, Mr. Woodruff worked all throughout the job site both on and off ships. He did not wear respiratory protection while performing this work and testified he had no knowledge that asbestos-containing thermal insulation found all throughout the Navy vessels could be deadly. Third party witnesses who worked at Zidell during the same time period described incredibly dusty, dirty conditions caused by the dismantling process.
At trial, Mr. Woodruff sought accountability from the Port of Tacoma, which owned the land upon which Zidell operated, and Zidell Explorations, the Portland-based sister corporation that worked hand-in-hand with Zidell Dismantling’s Tacoma operations. In his testimony, Woodruff told the court and jury that he was grateful to be alive but knew his disease was terminal.
During trial, the jury learned that later environmental studies of the Port of Tacoma revealed asbestos buried in the soil decades after Mr. Woodruff worked there. The jury also heard that Zidell Explorations owned the ships that were dismantled in Tacoma and even signed a guarantee with the Port promising to ensure that the job site was kept clean and safe. Zidell Explorations further guaranteed that all safety laws and regulations would be followed. The jury found that Zidell Explorations’ failure to warn or protect Mr. Woodruff from asbestos hazards was negligent and contributed to causing Mr. Woodruff’s disease. Both the Port of Tacoma and Zidell Explorations argued at trial that Mr. Woodruff was 100% at fault for causing his own illness for failing to wear a respirator and that the jury should award him nothing. However, the jury flatly rejected this argument.
“We are grateful that Dennis Woodruff was able participate in his trial and see a jury hold Zidell Explorations accountable for failing to warn and protect him from asbestos hazards. The jury’s conclusion that Dennis had no fault for contracting his preventable disease is especially gratifying and important to Dennis,” said Chandler Udo.
Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals composed of soft, flexible fibers that are heat resistant. It was widely used though the 1970s. Its diverse applications included fire-retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes, and fireplace cement, heat-, fire-, and acid-resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture and drywall joint compound.
Mesothelioma is a relatively rare disease that afflicts 2,500 to 3,000 Americans every year. It occurs when asbestos fibers are inhaled and become embedded in the protective lining of the lungs (pleura). Overtime, asbestos fibers cause inflammation and scarring within the lining that can cause genetic mutation that leads to cancer. Mesothelioma typically arises 30 to 50 years after an individual is exposed to asbestos. While chemotherapy can slow the progression of the disease, there is no cure and most mesothelioma victims die within six to eighteen months of their diagnosis. Unlike lung cancer, mesothelioma is only caused by asbestos and not impacted by cigarette smoking.
Mesothelioma is not limited to the trades who work directly with asbestos products but impacts anyone in the work area who breaths asbestos dust released by this work. Mesothelioma also afflicts family members of exposed workers who bring asbestos dust home on their work clothes.
Washington state has the fourth highest rate of mesothelioma in the United States based on the high proportion of its population who worked in the shipbuilding, aluminum, and wood processing industries.