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Jackson County Could Face Millions In Damages In Asbestos Case

Noah Jeppson

Thousands of Missouri residents who may have been exposed to asbestos in the Jackson County Courthouse over more than three decades will now get their day in court.

The Missouri Court of Appeals on Tuesday overturned a lower court’s decision declining to certify a class consisting of Missourians who worked at the courthouse during and after the courthouse’s renovation in 1983 and 1984.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by two now-former courthouse workers against U.S. Engineering Co. and Jackson County. The lawsuit alleged the defendants negligently failed to prevent the spread of asbestos dust in the courthouse.

U.S. Engineering contracted with the county to renovate and repair the building’s air-handling units and pipes, which were wrapped with insulation containing asbestos. The plaintiffs say the air handling units were not turned off during the project, which allegedly resulted in thick layers of asbestos powder being deposited throughout the downtown Kansas City, Mo., landmark.

The plaintiffs sued on behalf of courthouse workers who were allegedly exposed to the fibers and thus at significantly heightened risk of coming down with asbestos-related illnesses.

The case could prove a ticking time bomb for Jackson County. The plaintiffs are seeking more than $40 million to pay for the costs of a medical monitoring program, and punitive damages could amount to tens of millions more.  

Just how expensive the case may prove to be was underscored in November 2011, when the county and U.S. Engineering agreed to pay $10 million to settle an individual case brought by the family of a former courthouse employee who died of mesothelioma.

U.S. Engineering denied liability but said it settled to bring closure to both the family and the company. The company paid the lion's share of the settlement; Jackson County paid $400,000. 

The proposed class in the pending lawsuit consists of Missouri residents who worked inside the courthouse for longer than two consecutive weeks or for 80 hours annually since 1983.

Lou Accurso, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that between 2,000 and 4,000 current and former courthouse workers could be eligible to participate.

“We’re ready to try the case,” he said. “All the work has been done.”

Tuesday’s appeals court decision came after Jackson County Circuit Judge Jack N. Peace declined to certify the class last summer, finding that individual issues predominated over common ones.

In reversing Peace, a three-judge panel ruled that he misinterpreted the law and that the plaintiffs met all the criteria for class certification. The panel sent the case back to Peace.

“We’re extremely pleased,” Accurso said. “We felt all along we had more than enough evidence and the law was clear to get the class certified.”

Lisa Carter, a spokeswoman for Jackson County, said the county would have no comment on pending litigation.

Attorneys for U.S. Engineering could not immediately be reached for comment.

Accurso said the next step in the case will be to ask Peace to certify the class in accordance with the appeals court decision and then to seek “the earliest possible trial date.”

Accurso said he hoped to try the case this year.

The University of Kansas Medical Center would do the medical monitoring if the plaintiffs prevail.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that U.S. Engineering's share of a previous settlement was $400,000. That was Jackson County's share of the settlement. 

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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