More than a dozen attorneys crowded into Superior Court Judge Robert Molloy’s courtroom Friday to share the status of some of the more than 600 remaining asbestos cases against Hess Oil.
Litigation of the cases has been moving slowly since 1997 and 1998, when the first 400 cases were filed by people claiming illness due to asbestos and/or silica dust exposure from the refinery and St. Croix Alumina. In 2013 and 2014 alone, approximately 120 people sued Hess with claims of asbestos exposure during their employment, according to court documents.
Over the years, the plaintiffs have been mostly employees of the Hess Refinery, family members or people who lived in the vicinity – between 40 and 50 women have filed lawsuits.
The first toxic dust case in the territory was settled in 2003 against Owens Corning in favor of plaintiff, William Dunn. At first he was awarded $2 million and after appeal the amount was reduced to $500,000. He died of cancer before he had a chance to spend it.
According to Russell Pate, attorney for the plaintiffs, Hess has settled all cases that haven’t been dismissed by the court. The company has not tried any in court.
“It looks like Hess didn’t care about the (1972 federal) law,” Pate said, and the company didn’t begin to notify employees about the asbestos in the insulation until after they started seeing lawsuits. (Limetree Bay, the new operators of the refinery sent a memo to employees and contractors in March 2015 that there is still asbestos in the refinery.)
In the meantime, some of the plaintiffs have died before giving depositions and others have not been located because of the passage of time, slowing down the process.
The number of cases grew eventually to 1,400, Pate estimated, and Hess sued all of the contractors at the refinery feeling they should pay their fare share. Several of the attorneys in Molloy’s court represented companies such as Union Carbide, 3M and Dryers and Ricktors.
When the cases were first filed, St. Croix had one fewer judge than did the St. Thomas/St. John district. When the court was filled, it was decided that one judge should handle all of the complex toxic cases – and Molloy was selected.
It was reported in the courtroom Friday that 500 cases were resolved in Molloy’s court last year. He had set a trial date for May 2018 for four cases but by the trial date, all 500 complaints were settled. Thirty of the plaintiffs had died before going to court so Molloy held a status conference Friday to learn about contact and resolution with the estates of the deceased.
During Friday’s session, it was apparent the judge and attorneys were very familiar with the cases as they discussed the status of plaintiffs. Several commended the judge and his staff on creating charts and comprehensive data for the cases for the attorneys’ use.
Pate said he hopes a trial date can be set by next May, although there is still a good amount of communication that needs to take place between the court and the victims.
“You can’t dismiss (a case) if there has been no contact with the plaintiff,” Molloy reminded the courtroom.