Ed Meyer

Damage claims filed decades ago are heading for possible settlements in Summit County Probate Court for the heirs of hundreds of Akron rubber workers who died, or developed serious illnesses, from exposure to asbestos.

The court has scheduled a hearing at 9 a.m. June 22 for 500 cases already filed by a law firm specializing in Ohio asbestos litigation, and the number is expected to grow to more than 1,500 cases by the date of the hearing.

In the longest-running mass tort in U.S. history, scores of damage claims in this area were filed in the 1980s and ’90s by rubber workers and boilermakers from Akron’s major tire and engineering companies.

Settlement payouts are no longer under legal challenge, and the objective now, attorney Thomas W. Bevan said in a recent interview, is locating the heirs of the deceased workers to finalize the paperwork needed to distribute the money.

An $80 million fund was set up in 2004, Bevan said, when insurance giant Travelers Cos. Inc. reached a settlement agreement with Johns Manville Corp. of Denver — the largest U.S. manufacturer of asbestos-containing products for more than half a century.

The fund was to cover approximately 15,000 to 20,000 cases. About 14,000 of those were from Ohio, with the largest number coming from Summit County, Bevan said.

Nationwide, the claims were consolidated in federal bankruptcy court in New York, with former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo serving as mediator.

Actual payouts, however, were delayed in a long series of appeals that reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, after Travelers fought for over 10 years to avoid payment obligations, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ordered last summer that the company pay up.

“We’ve been out in limbo on this for 11 years now,” Bevan said, “but it’s finally going to happen, and we think we’re going to get these people compensated.”

Bevan said the settlement payouts range from $2,100 to $23,000, based on medical diagnoses for various asbestos-related illnesses.

Mesothelioma, one of the most serious illnesses, is a malignant tumor on the covering of the lungs or the lining of the abdominal cavity.

Summit County Probate Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer will conduct the June 22 hearing to officially begin the process of locating the heirs of the affected rubber workers.

Bevan said that most of the affected workers were employed at Goodyear, B.F. Goodrich, Firestone, General Tire, Mohawk, Goodyear Aerospace and Babcock & Wilcox.

“Ultimately, our goal is to find their heirs to distribute these funds. Unfortunately, we’re now talking about the children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews of these workers,” Bevan said.

Stormer said those who feel they might be family members of affected workers should attend the hearing or call the court at 330-643-2330 and ask for her assistant, Stephanie Wintermute.

Case information also is available by calling Bevan’s office in Hudson at 330-650-0088 or by sending an email to tbevan@bevanlaw.com.

Archives of the Mesothelioma Center show that one of the landmark claims filed against Johns Manville was by James O. Cavett, who worked around boiler and pipe insulation for 40 years beginning in 1939.

In his 1982 personal injury trial in Tennessee, Cavett testified that the asbestos dust from those Johns Manville-manufactured products was so bad, it looked like “someone dumped a barrel of flour on you.”

Cavett later died from asbestos-related lung cancer. A jury awarded his wife $800,000 for compensatory damages and $1.5 million for punitive damages.

Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at emeyer@thebeaconjournal.com.