When Kathryn Darnell was diagnosed in the late ’90s with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure, the Akron, Ohio, woman wasn’t overly concerned about how she got it.
What bothered her was knowing she’d die from it.
Darnell, who worked for B.F. Goodrich Co. for 18 years, suffered in the last months of her life. She died in June 2001.
“It got to where she was in a great deal of pain,” recalled Marilyn Holley, Darnell’s daughter who lives in Akron. “To see a loved one suffer like that – that’s not good at all.”
Holley, 77, who has now outlived her mother, is among about 3,800 Akron rubber workers and their heirs who will soon be getting payouts because of a $72.5 million settlement against Eastern Magnesia Talc or Emtal. This Delaware company was the biggest supplier of talc or soapstone to rubber companies from the 1950s to the early 1980s.
Talc was used to keep rubber from sticking. It contained asbestos – a fact that Emtal and its employees and lawyers lied about and hid for many years from the rubber companies they supplied, the attorneys and plaintiffs suing them, and the courts.
As much as $60 million of the talc settlement is expected to go to Akron rubber workers and their heirs. They will receive payments of between $4,000 and $300,000, depending on the severity of the asbestos-related disease they endured.
Tom Bevan and Pat Walsh, whose Boston Heights firm represents most of the rubber workers, are searching for family members of more than 500 rubber workers who may be eligible for payments through the settlement.
“What we’re doing now is correcting an injustice that occurred as many as 30 years ago,” Bevan, who has worked on asbestos litigation throughout his career, said during a hearing in Summit County Probate Court about the talc settlements. “Unfortunately, these people haven’t survived to see the money, but it should go to their children or heirs.”
Bevan said this is the largest asbestos settlement ever for Akron rubber workers in terms how much they are getting.
Bevan and others involved with the talc settlement hope it sends a message that this type of deception won’t be tolerated.
“Companies cannot take profit over people,” said Holley, who was part of the federal lawsuit that resulted in the talc settlement. “This particular one was awful because of the fraud and spoilation of proof. They had no intention of doing the right thing.”
Talc: The ‘flour’ of the rubber industry
Bevan said talc, which is mined from the earth, was used extensively in the rubber industry to keep rubber from sticking — the same as flour added to a rolling pin during baking.
“It was the flour of the rubber industry,” Bevan said.
Rubber products were dusted with talc, which settled on piping and workers’ clothing.
“Everybody in the rubber industry was breathing in that soapstone or talc,” Bevan said.
Dave Prentice, the head of the Tri-County Regional Labor Council, recalls well talc or soapstone being used at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. where he worked as a pipefitter for 37 years.
Prentice, who joined Goodyear in 1970, followed in the footsteps of his father, Ellsworth Prentice, who also was a pipefitter at Goodyear.
Prentice said talc was prevalent in Goodyear’s reclaim plant, where old rubber was broken down and reused. He said talc helped keep the milled rubber from sticking to itself. He said the rubber was so sticky that workers could lose a pair of gloves on it.
Custodians tried to sweep the floor to keep up with the collection of talc, but Prentice said it was on the floors and under the tables. He said it was a white powder that looked like baby powder but had no odor.
“It was never mentioned that it was harmful,” Prentice said. “There was no mask requirement.”
Prentice said the talc was so heavy in the air that you couldn’t see from one side of the reclaim plant to the other. He said workers would sometimes put water on the talc and throw it at each other like snowballs.
The reclaim plant had a shower room but employees had to walk through the plant to leave, which meant they likely got talc on them again, Prentice said.
Prentice moved to different Goodyear facilities but his father mainly worked at the reclaim plant. He said his father, a World War II veteran, loved his job and never complained.
“He was thankful to have his health and have a job and provide for his family,” said Prentice, who has four kids and seven grandkids.
Ellsworth Prentice worked for Goodyear for 17 years before being diagnosed with liver cancer. He died in 1973 at the age of 54.
Rubber workers sue over asbestos-related diseases
Dave Prentice continued to work at Goodyear until 2009, seeing a growing awareness about the dangers of asbestos that started in the mid-1980s. Asbestos, a substance known to be a good insulator and fire resistant, was used throughout the rubber plants until the realization dawned that it was harmful.
In the mid-1980s, rubber workers began being tested for asbestos-related diseases. Many were diagnosed with asbestosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Some rubber workers ended up with lung cancer or mesothelioma, a deadly and aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Prentice learned in 2013 that he has asbestosis, which can affect a person’s breathing. He said he can’t think of anyone who worked in the rubber shops who was tested and had no asbestos-related diseases. He said, though, that he hasn’t let his diagnosis slow him down.
“I don’t think about it,” he said. “You’ve got to keep moving.”
Many rubber workers who contracted asbestos-related diseases and their heirs have filed lawsuits.
In 2004, a fund totaling $80 million was set up after insurance giant Travelers Cos. reached a settlement with attorneys representing tens of thousands of U.S. employees with asbestos-related claims. Travelers insured Johns Manville Corp. of Denver – the largest U.S. manufacturer of asbestos-containing products for more than a century.
Across the country, 19,000 cases were paid from the settlement. Summit County had the largest number of cases, with about 6,000.
Damage claims ranged from $2,100 to $23,000 based on the type of asbestos-related illness.
Emtal claims talc has no asbestos
Emtal, which also was known as Englehard Corp., was among the companies sued by rubber workers with asbestos-related diseases in the 1980s and 1990s, but the company claimed for many years that its talc contained no asbestos.
The company was the largest supplier of talc for the rubber industry, selling 12 million pounds of talc from the 1950s until 1982, which was about 80% of the market share of talc, Bevan said.
Rubber workers filed lawsuits against Emtal in state and federal courts in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The company and its attorneys claimed in sworn statements and letters to attorneys and courts that its talc contained no asbestos.
In a document filed in a 1988 Summit County lawsuit, the company said it mined talc from a single mine in Johnson, Vermont, from 1967 to 1983 and “the talc from this mine did not contain asbestos.”
In a 1992 letter, Emtal’s attorneys asked to be dismissed from a rubber worker case in Cuyahoga County because its talc “contained no asbestos.”
Cuyahoga County talc document by Stephanie Lawrence on Scribd
Emtal also told its customers that its talc had no asbestos. In a letter to Goodyear in January 1962, the company said, “There is no technical data in our files on the toxicity of our talc, as it has never before been considered toxic in any form or application.”
In a technical data sheet Emtal provided in February 1978, the company said “no trace” of asbestos minerals had been detected in its talc.
As a result of its continued denials, Emtal was dismissed from thousands of cases or reached settlements for nominal amounts from 1987 to 2009.
Lies are exposed through lawsuits
Emtal’s deception, though, began to unravel through several court cases.
In a 1979 lawsuit filed against Emtal in Rhode Island, company witnesses admitted in depositions that the company’s talc contained asbestos.
Emtal, though, settled this case in 1983 with a confidentially order that resulted in the documents being destroyed or hidden for 30 years.
Donna Paduano, the daughter of a retired Emtal chemical engineer, sued Emtal in 2009 in New Jersey. She claimed she got mesothelioma because of her father bringing asbestos home on his clothing.
Her father testified that in March 1984 Emtal issued a memo telling the research department to purge its talc records.
Talc Document Collection Memo by Stephanie Lawrence on Scribd
Ellen Poole, an Emtal representative, admitted in 2010 that asbestos was found in talc as far back as 1972 in multiple tests by different entities. Despite these results, she said, Emtal told its customers, the federal government, courts and plaintiff lawyers in multiple states there was no asbestos in the talc.
“Based on what you know and the history that you have researched, is the statement that Emtal contained no asbestos a true statement?” Poole was asked in a deposition.
“No,” she responded.
Talc lawsuit results in settlement
In 2010, the heirs of five Akron rubber workers filed a class action lawsuit against Emtal, several of its employees and its attorneys in New Jersey federal court.
All five workers died of lung cancer or mesothelioma.
The heirs claimed that Emtal, which was bought by chemical company BASF Catalysts LLC in 2006, and its attorneys had engaged in fraud, misrepresentation and an abuse of process by claiming for many years that its talc didn’t contain asbestos when it did.
Holley, whose mother, Kathryn Darnell, a B.F. Goodrich employee from Akron, died of mesothelioma, was among the plaintiffs.
The trial court threw out the case, but an appellate court reversed the decision, saying the claims were legitimate.
Holley helped with the suit, including traveling to New Jersey for a day during an attempt to reach a settlement and giving a deposition in Cleveland in 2019. She recalled being nervous and angry during her deposition, especially when she saw the 10 attorneys representing the company.
“I hated the whole thing – what it stood for – ‘Oh no, our talc does not have asbestos,’” she said. “I really had attitude.”
However, Holley said the attorneys were cordial and it wasn’t as bad as she feared it would be.
A $72.5 million settlement was reached in the case in September 2021, with checks expected to be sent to rubber workers and their heirs this February and March.
Jeff Gramley, whose father, Jack Gramley, worked for the rubber companies in Akron, is among those who will be eligible for a settlement.
Jack Gramley worked for Slater Systems that ran food carts at B.F. Goodrich and later was a rubber worker for B.F. Goodrich and Goodyear in the ’50s and ’60s.
Gramley was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1992 and opted against having any treatment. He died on Christmas Eve of 1994 at age 58.
Jeff Gramley said his father didn’t know how he got the disease.
“If I know him, he wouldn’t have been bitter,” Gramley said. “I think he would have looked at it like, ‘That’s the way things were back then.’”
The younger Gramley, though, mourns his father and what he missed, including getting to spend time with his grandchildren – one who was named after him – and meet his great-grandchildren.
“Had he not gotten this, he might still be here,” Jeff Gramley said as he sat in front of a wall of family portraits. “It took him way too soon. It didn’t have to be that way if they had taken the necessary precautions.”
Holley, Kathryn Darnell’s daughter, recalls her mother coming home from B.F. Goodrich extremely dirty. She said her mother, who kept her Akron home spotless, would take her clothes off right away and wash them.
Darnell worked for Goodrich from 1969 to 1987, retiring when the plant closed.
Darnell got a $30,000 settlement because of the earlier asbestos litigation. She used the money for new carpeting, furniture and drapes for her living room. She died, though, in 2001 at age 73 before completing improvements to her kitchen. Her family finished this project.
Holley, who has three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild, thinks her mother would be amazed that the asbestos and talc litigation has gone on for as long as it has and would be proud of her for seeing it through.
Holley said she hasn’t enjoyed being involved but feels an obligation to stand up for the many rubber workers and their families who have suffered because of the use of asbestos.
“It’s just sad,” Holley said. “It came at a cost.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at [email protected], 330-996-3705 and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.
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Talc settlement: By the numbers
Total talc settlement: $72.5 million.
Amount going to Akron rubber workers: $50 million to $60 million.
Estimated payments to workers/heirs: $4,000 to $300,000, based on severity of asbestos-related disease.
Rubber workers/heirs owed settlements: About 3,800.
Rubber workers whose heirs haven’t been identified: More than 500.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio rubber workers sickened by talc getting millions in settlement