Up until the year 2000, the Reynolds Metal Company was the world’s third largest producer of aluminum products. Aluminum foil, aluminum cans and aluminum home siding are among the products that remain in common use today.
The aluminum company founded in 1919 by R.S. Reynolds (nephew of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds and father of R.S. Reynolds Jr., founder of the brokerage firm Reynolds Securities) was profitable even through the difficult years of the 1930s. In 1937, Reynolds traveled to Germany and noted that the country’s aluminum production capacity was twice that of the U.S., U.K. and France combined. Predicting Hitler’s bellicose intentions, Reynolds borrowed $15 million in order to build a smelter in Sheffield Alabama and open a bauxite mine in Arkansas. By the end of the Second World War in 1945, the company was able to produce nearly a quarter-million tons of aluminum per year.
The company grew tremendously in response to the skyrocketing demand for aluminum products between 1946 and the mid 1960s. When the demand for aluminum started to level off, the company was among the first to seriously engage in aluminum recycling; by 1991, Reynolds was recycling more aluminum than it produced. At that time, the company employed over 30,000 workers worldwide; 64 of their production plants were located across the U.S. in California, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states. In May of 2000, Reynolds was taken over by Alcoa, which is now the largest aluminum producer in the nation.
Although modern aluminum manufacturing methods are performed at much lower temperatures than in the early days, alumina must still be heated to around 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (about 980 C). In aluminum plants, this process takes place in the “pot room;” it is in such places that fire and heat-resistant asbestosinsulation has been used in the past.
Because aluminum companies such as Reynolds (or in this case, its successor Alcoa) are not themselves asbestos manufactures, but rather employ asbestos products purchased from outside parties, lawsuits against such companies may be based on premises liability rather than product liability. The theory here is that the owner and/or occupier of property are legally responsible for events that occur on said property.
In the case of such an asbestos suit against an industry that is not itself an asbestos manufacturer, the outcome can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the status of the plaintiff. A plaintiff who was employed in an aluminum plant, assigned duty in an area in which s/he was exposed to asbestos and subsequently contracted mesothelioma (A rare form of asbestos cancer) has a better chance of recovering his/her monetary expenses as well as compensation for pain and suffering under premises liability than an independent contractor or frequent visitor.
The drawback in applying premises liability to an industrial operation is that it is often difficult to prove deliberate negligence; the management of an aluminum company that installed asbestos may or may not have known of its health hazards. For this reason, a lawsuit initially based on premises liability against the aluminum company generally becomes a product liability action against the manufacturer of the asbestos product.