A 65-year-old Beaverton man who is dying of asbestos-related cancer — four decades after he was exposed to the material on Portland-area construction sites — was awarded $8.75 million by a Multnomah County Circuit Court jury.
The verdict for David Hoff and his wife came after 3½ weeks of trial showing that Kaiser Gypsum, the manufacturer of a spackle-like product used on wallboard, exposed Hoff to asbestos in the 1970s even though evidence presented at trial showed the company was aware of the hazards as early as 1965.
Hoff was a carpenter and was in his 20s when he worked construction sites where the Kaiser Gypsum product was applied by drywall workers, then sanded, releasing the tiny cancerous fibers into the air he breathed, Hoff’s attorneys contended during trial.
The verdict is believed to the the largest in Oregon for an asbestos-related disease contracted from a worksite, said Brian Ladenburg, the Seattle attorney who represented Hoff with attorneys Craig Sims and Kaitlin Wright. Their firm specializes in asbestos litigation in Oregon and Washington.
Ladenburg said it typically takes 20 to 50 years for someone exposed to asbestos to develop the type of cancer Hoff contracted: mesothelioma, which affects the lining of the lungs. Kaiser Gypsum said it stopped making the spackle-like compound referenced in the suit in 1975, on its own volition, Ladenburg said.
Around that time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had begun issuing warnings and passing regulations banning asbestos in some products, including pipe insulation and spray-on insulation.
Although asbestos is almost entirely banned in the U.S. today, people are still exposed to it mostly when they’re remodeling old homes or trying to remove it from old structures, experts say. Last year, a Lake Oswego real estate agent who investigators say tried to save money — by hiring untrained day laborers to improperly remove asbestos from a 1908 Southeast Portland home he was flipping — was convicted of a crime.
An investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive last September found that hundreds of Portland-area homes are being demolished with asbestos inside.
Experts say some people can acquire mesothelioma after a single exposure. But 90 to 98 percent of people — including those who were exposed to asbestos for years — won’t get the disease despite past exposure, according to The Mesothelioma Center.
Roughly 2,000 to 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma per year in the U.S. — and by far, most people who sue are at least in their 60s. Ladenburg has handled cases with people as young as a woman in her 30s and a man in his 20s, who were exposed by parents who had worked around asbestos or in projects removing it from structures, and brought the fibers home to them on their clothes.
None of the dozens of other construction workers with whom Hoff has worked is known to have come down with mesothelioma, Ladenburg said.
“It was commercial stuff — they weren’t selling it to do-it-yourselfers,” Ladenburg said. “The testimony was they used dozens if not hundreds of these buckets because they were building commercial office buildings, …strip malls and shopping centers.”
Ladenburg said doctors caught Hoff’s cancer early. It showed up in an imaging scan to try to ferret out the source of an unrelated problem with his kidneys. The scan showed a small fluid buildup near Hoff’s lungs — even before Hoff began to exhibit the typical symptoms of shortness of breath and pain. In August 2015, he was diagnosed.
“He retired a couple years ago and was going to enjoy his retirement, and then got this,” Ladenburg said. “It is universally fatal. People always die from it. There is no cure for it.”
Last October, Hoff had surgery to remove one of his lungs.
“It’s not expected to cure him, but it’s supposed to give him more time,” Ladenburg said.
Hoff has been told he can expect to live another one to 1½ years. Judge Judith Matarazzo instructed jurors that if Hoff hadn’t contracted mesotheiloma, he could have expected to live another 17 years. He is the father to three daughters, and has several grandchildren. He also is a volunteer in his church and a Royal Rosarian.
Hoff attended the first day or two of trial in May, but then became too ill to attend and was hospitalized.
Hoff’s original suit listed two other companies as defendants: Union Carbide, which was the supplier of the asbestos used in the spackle-like product, and Georgia Pacific, which had a similar spackle-like product. Ladenburg said both companies reached a confidential settlement with Hoff during trial.
The jury awarded Hoff $750,000 for medical expenses and $4 million for pain and suffering. It also awarded $4 million to his wife, Patricia Hoff, for the suffering she has endured and will endure after the loss of her husband.
— Aimee Green