New York County Faces New Lawsuits

In September, we brought you a story on an asbestos removal project in Cayuga County, New York, in which two county employees were indicted on federal charges for failure to follow regulations and engaging in illegal asbestos abatement procedures (see “And Yet Another Asbestos Scandal”). Earlier this month, an attorney in Auburn has filed the fourth asbestos-related lawsuit against the county government on behalf of citizens who were exposed to asbestos in the Board of Elections Building.
Last year, county health authorities had shut down the building in question because air tests had indicated elevated levels of asbestos in the air. The asbestos was discovered in the process of a routine boiler replacement. A county employee who was overseeing the project failed to stop the work as state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agencies required; neither his supervisor nor a local official took action to address the situation. Instead, untrained, unprotected work-release inmates were used for the abatement project. Meanwhile, the building continued to be open to the public for six months, creating a community health hazard. The county closed down the building after a whistleblower, Anthony Garropy, reported the situation to the U.S. EPA.

The county employee overseeing the project, John Chick, allegedly threatened Garropy’s life; Garropy was fired shortly thereafter. The result has been a legal disaster for Cayuga County. During the last week of October, local attorney Carl DePalma has filed suits on behalf of the six work-release inmates who worked on the project as well as fifteen county employees who continued to work in the building between February, when the asbestos was discovered, and August, when the building was finally closed. In addition, DePalma is representing Anthony Garropy, who is suing for damages and for reinstatement, and John Montgomery, a city landfill employee who was exposed when the asbestos waste was illegally dumped. The suits allege that the plaintiffs were exposed to asbestos fibers; however, none have shown any sign of respiratory disease. Furthermore, any signs of such disease may not appear for twenty to forty years. Herein lies the problem: much “tort reform” in recent years has focused on limiting such action to those who actually have symptoms of asbestos disease. The plaintiffs in Auburn may have a better case since their exposure was directly related to an actual violation of the law, however.