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Sixth Circuit Rejects Asbestos Lawsuit from Former Oak Ridge Subcontractors

Many workers have suffered serious, life-threatening illnesses while working at energy facilities throughout Tennessee, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory located near Knoxville. In recent years, nearly two dozen illnesses have been reported by energy and atomic workers, including cancer, lung disease, and hearing loss. Unfortunately, holding companies responsible for exposing energy workers to hazardous conditions is generally a long and difficult legal process.

Contractor Not Liable for Exposure to Hazardous Materials

Recently a federal court rejected an appeal in a long-running legal battle over asbestos exposure at the Oak Ridge facility. The plaintiffs were five men who worked as subcontractors at Oak Ridge. In the late 1990s, the Department of Energy hired a contractor to “decontaminate, decommission, and recycle” three buildings at Oak Ridge formerly used to process uranium. The contractor specialized in such decommissioning work.

But the project also required the demolition of a switchyard, which was a matter outside of the contractor’s expertise. The contractor therefore subcontracted the work to another company, which in turn hired the five plaintiffs in this case. The plaintiffs were specifically hired to remove and disassemble eight synchronous condensers—machines used to adjust conditions on the power grid—so they could be repurposed.

Under the agreement between the contractor and the subcontractor, the condensers were provided “as is” and without any warranty with respect to their condition. Entering into the deal, neither party knew if the condensers contained any hazardous materials such as asbestos. But the subcontractor was familiar with these types of condensers—which were built in the 1950s—and knew they might contain such materials. And while negotiating a formal work plan to remove the condensers, asbestos was in fact discovered in the wiring of another condenser undergoing removal by a different subcontractor.

Several months later, the plaintiffs began disassembling the condensers removed by the subcontractor. According to court records, the plaintiffs “did not work pursuant to any general safety plan, were largely unsupervised, and none of the Plaintiffs wore respirators or protective clothing during the disassembly.” Only after this work began did the plaintiffs learn about the discovery of asbestos by the other subcontractor.

The plaintiffs subsequently sued a number of parties, which led to 15 years of litigation in state and federal court. The present case dealt with the plaintiffs’ claim against the contractor who removed the condensers. The plaintiffs argued they relied on the contractor’s “misrepresentations” about the condition of the units—i.e., that they did not any contain hazardous materials. The contractor argued, and the courts agreed, that even if there were misrepresentations, it was unreasonable for the plaintiffs to have relied on them. In other words, as the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals explained in an April xx opinion, given that the plaintiffs “were all experienced contractors in the electrical equipment industry who were dismantling old equipment, other components of which” contained asbestos, it was unreasonable for the subcontractor or the plaintiffs to rely on any guarantee made by the contractor. Furthermore, the contractor—who did not directly hire or employ the plaintiffs—had no legal duty to protect them from “ultrahazardous materials that might be encountered in the condensers.”

Get Help from a Knoxville Energy & Atomic Worker Accident Attorney

Although this particular case did not result in justice for the plaintiffs, it illustrates the complexity of energy and atomic worker litigation. An experienced Tennessee personal injury lawyer can assist you with these types of cases. If you or a loved one have suffered due to exposure to hazardous conditions, contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton right away.

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