by Matt Rosenberg July 17th, 2012
The Port of Seattle Board of Commissioners last week approved by unanimous vote a $475,000 settlement its attorneys recommended with the widow of a union electrician who worked for a construction firm at the Port’s SeaTac Airport in the early 1970s and contracted a fatal disease that was alleged to have been related to on-the-job exposure to asbestos. In a staff memo to the board, Port General Counsel Craig Watts and Senior Counsel Annie Purcell state the settlement with Lorena Jo Potts and the estate of the worker, Donald Lee Potts, will likely save the Port money. They cite ongoing litigation costs from a trial that began May 31, 2012, as well as the Port’s “liability exposure and the likelihood that a judgement endered in the event of continued litigation would likely be in the amount claimed or higher…”
Potts, a longtime resident of Kent, worked at SeaTac from 1970 to 1972 and suffered alleged asbestos exposure. In November 2010 he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, described by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control as a rare form of cancer often associated with inhalation of airborne asbestos particles. He died January 13, 2011 at the age of 71. His wife Lorena Jo, now 68, filed suit; the case landed in Pierce County Court. The Port’s $475,000 settlement will be paid by one of its insurance providers, United States Aircraft Insurance Group. The settlement approval was part of the consent agenda at the Port’s July 10 meeting, and was approved unanimously by the four commissioners present.
Ms. Potts in a phone interview said her husband worked at the airport during a major construction project which included new satellite buildings and a new baggage system, and was in proximity to other workers spraying asbestos-containing fireproof coating on large beams to keep them from melting and falling in the event of a major fire. She said the lawsuit “was about what they knew or should have known” about the related health risks. “The amount they awarded was indicative of having to admit some responsibility.”
Ms. Potts said her late husband Donald and she came to the Seattle area in 1956 and 1957 respectively, from the same small town in Colorado. His brother was married to her sister. Donald worked his entire adult life as an electrician. He was a sports enthusiast who liked to hunt and fish, said Ms. Potts, and he mentored their nieces and nephews after his brother died at an early age. “He was much admired and respected throughout the union community and in his family,” she said. The Potts’ have two adult children, and several grandchildren.
Public records and news accounts show at least two other cases where the Port had to pay penalties related to asbestos hazards at SeaTac Airport.
In 1999, the Port was fined $29,000 by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries for asbestos-related safety violations at SeaTac Airport as part of a $127,000 in total sanctions for asbestos safety rule violations which also involved six Port contrctos working on renovations to concession areas in SeaTac’s north and south satellite areas. L&I’s notice of the fines stated that the Port “…was cited for nine serious violations…related to enclosures, respirators, decontamination, asbestos debris, encapsulation, air clearance sampling, and laboratory quality control. In addition, the port was cited for failing to conduct a survey to determine if asbestos was present, and failure to notify a contractor that asbestos remained in the project area.”
In 1991, The Seattle Times reported that the Port and four building firms settled for $80,000 a 1989 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency complaint which asserted they had mishandled asbestos removal in 1986 during renovation of the north end of SeaTac’s main passenger terminal.