Metalclad Says Asbestos Trial Experts Limited By COVID-19

By Dorothy Atkins
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Law360 (September 2, 2020, 8:19 PM EDT) -- Metalclad Insulation LLC's counsel fired back Wednesday at a retired Navy admiral's arguments that its expert cherry-picked documents he will testify to in an online California asbestos trial, saying there were "serious [COVID-19] restrictions to what anyone got in this trial, and that's going to be made clear."

After the jury recessed for the day, counsel representing retired Rear Adm. Ronald Wilgenbusch and his wife, Judith, complained that one of Metalclad's expert witnesses "never gets the whole documents," making it difficult for the plaintiffs' legal team to examine him.

But Metalclad's counsel, Sheila G. O'Gara, blamed the document production limitations on restrictions posed by the coronavirus pandemic and said that will be made evident to the jury during the witness' examination. 

The exchange came at the end of a day of testimony in a trial over claims Wilgenbusch was exposed to asbestos during the installation and removal of Metalclad-supplied insulation on several Navy ships. He alleges the asbestos exposure contributed to his mesothelioma, which will likely cut his life short by years.

The case was headed to an in-person trial in July, but Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman moved it to Zoom after one juror came down with a fever. Since then, the judge has denied multiple requests by Metalclad for a mistrial, ruling in one instance that a friendly discussion between the admiral and two jurors about how to put up a Zoom virtual background didn't unfairly influence the panel.

Although the trial is being conducted via Zoom, only the audio is being streamed live to the public on the court's website.

On Wednesday, the couple's counsel, William F. Ruiz of Maune Raichle Hartley French & Mudd LLC, spent the day examining Metalclad corporate representative Donald Rees Trueblood, who started working there in 1997 and retired in 2014 when the company ceased operations.

Trueblood acknowledged the company sold asbestos containing products but noted they weren't "pure" asbestos products, and that it stopped selling asbestos-containing mastic products sometime after 1973.

Over objections, Ruiz asked Trueblood if Metalclad was "all about profit." Trueblood eventually acknowledged that when Metalclad sold asbestos-containing insulation, "it did it for profit."

"Metalclad was not a nonprofit organization," Trueblood said. "The whole idea was that we had to make a profit … It's unfortunate, as it turns out, that it was as hazardous as it was, but no, no apologies. We were doing a service to our clients and really to the country."

Ruiz also asked Trueblood if Metalclad provided its customers with any instructions or warnings about how to remove asbestos products until the 1980s.

Trueblood replied that Metalclad didn't place any additional warnings or instructions on the products they sold, but pointed out the products came with warning labels required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He also acknowledged the company conducted none of their own studies regarding asbestos.

"I'm not sure what justification Metalclad needed," he said. "All we did was supply materials specified by clients."

Ruiz attempted to cast doubt over Trueblood's testimony by impeaching him multiple times, and at one point, Trueblood conceded he's "not always consistent in [his] answers."

"Over the years, I learned things that I didn't know early on as a [corporate representative]," he said.

Trueblood also stated he's not aware of when workers began making claims against the company alleging asbestos in products gave them cancer, and he didn't seek information on the issue from the workers' union.

Trial will continue Thursday with Trueblood's examination.

Wilgenbusch is represented by William F. Ruiz of Maune Raichle Hartley French & Mudd LLC.

Metalclad is represented by Sheila G. O'Gara.

The case is Ronald C. Wilgenbusch et al. v. Metalclad Insulation LLC, case number RG19029791, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Alameda.

--Additional reporting by Daniel Siegal. Editing by Philip Shea.

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