The history of the Brooklyn Navy Ship Yard (officially named the New York Naval Shipyard) is in a way the history of the U.S. military itself. Shipbuilding operations for the Navy started in 1798 when the federal government commissioned the construction of a 28-gun frigate christened the Adams. Three other famous battleships, the Maine, Arizona and the Missouri were launched from this yard in 1895, 1915 and 1944, respectively.
However, the shipyard’s connection with asbestos poisoning doesn’t begin until the eve of World War II.
Despite widespread isolationism among most Americans during the late 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration had come to the conclusion that a confrontation with fascist powers was inevitable. By 1938, the Brooklyn Navy Shipyard was in full production, employing 10,000 workers. Within the next few years, that figure climbed to 70,000.
Because fire is perhaps the most deadly emergency that can occur on a ship at sea, it was decided that asbestos would be used during a vessel’s construction. The danger of fire is increased during combat conditions, so the Navy did not hesitate to order that asbestos insulation and sprays be applied to everything from boilers and pipe fittings to fire doors and bulkheads.
The health dangers of asbestos, such as asbestosis (Scarring of the lungs) or mesothelioma (A fatal form of asbestos cancer) had been known for some time prior to 1940s. In 1942, Philip Drinker of the Harvard School of Public Health submitted a report on the issue to the U.S. Maritime Commission in which recommendations were made on worker safety. The report also caught the attention of the insurance industry, which was increasingly concerned about liability issues related to asbestos. Drinker’s report stated:
“Asbestosis is caused in connection with the handling of asbestos. This is not unlike silicosis in its effects, and we rather expect it to occur in shipyards, because we have seen asbestos being handled in installation work with little or no precautions.”
In 1943, the federal government did come up with standards for worker protection from asbestos. However, these were virtually ignored; it would be another thirty years before there was any meaningful enforcement of such standards.
Who Was Liable?
U.S. Navy veterans who survived rightfully received a heroes’ welcome; they were rewarded with the G.I. Bill and government home loans, and those who were damaged were cared for by the Veteran’s Administration.
Asbestos victims on the other hand have been largely ignored.
Bringing lawsuit against the federal government or any of its agencies is difficult. In the case of the Brooklyn Navy Shipyard, many plaintiffs have brought lawsuit against asbestos manufacturers and suppliers rather than the Department of the Navy.
Such actions typically involve multiple defendants. Under New York’s General Obligation Law 15-108(a), liability is determined on an aggregate basis. This means that instead of having the plaintiff settle with each defendant separately, all defendants are viewed collectively and liability is apportioned on the basis of percentages determined by the court. In one case where the defendants were Johns-Manville, Keene, Westinghouse Electric, and fifteen other asbestos product manufacturers, the court assigned 60.17% liability to Johns Manville, 15% to Keene, and the remaining 24.833% to the other defendants.