Yet another corporation was recently found guilty of willful and malicious behavior in its failure to warn and protect employees from the dangers of asbestos dust. The corporate defendant in this case was defense contractor Foster-Wheeler, a manufacturer of boilers, steam generators and other equipment. On 24 May, a Los Angeles jury awarded $5.2 million to the family of the late Richard Walmach, a former U.S. Navy machinist’s mate. After serving in the Navy for two years during the Vietnam conflict, Walmach spent the next 30 years working at naval shipyards and machine shops all over the country. Walmach worked in areas where workers used chisels and jackhammers to remove asbestos insulation from the boiler units of sea-going vessels undergoing refit and repairs. Such work released large amounts of friable asbestos fibers.
Evidence in the trial demonstrated that Foster-Wheeler had clear knowledge the health effects of asbestos as early as 1968. The evidence consisted of an internal company memo that defined maximum dust levels for asbestos installation. Furthermore, the memo stressed the importance of having employees wear respirators. Foster Wheeler management decided that enforcement of such guidelines and issuing of warnings would cut into the bottom line, and chose to ignore the recommendations outlined in the memo. Walmach said that had he been aware of what could happen, he would have gone into another line of work. Walmach died in 2006, aged 60. Andrew Waters, counsel for the plaintiff, explained that the U.S. Navy was well aware of the dangers of asbestos “decades ago”, While it is true that wearing a military uniform entails the acceptance of certain risks, it could be argued that combat personnel were aware of the risks they accept, whereas those who worked with asbestos had no way of knowing.