Leading the Fight Against Mesothelioma

By Bari Faye Siegel 

Chris Placitella

About five years ago, New Jersey attorney Chris Placitella received a phone call from a South Jersey woman. She was very upset having just come from the doctor who told her she had mesothelioma. 

“I went to her home on the day she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She was given two years to live. I made some phone calls and connected her with the right doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital,” explained Placitella, well known for his tireless work fighting for the legal rights of people sickened by asbestos. “It’s five years later and she is still alive. The day I met her, it wasn’t all about the case for me. It was about getting this woman the care she needed.” Ultimately, Placitella did obtain a substantial settlement in the case on behalf of his client. 

The interesting thing, noted Placitella, is that his client never worked in a factory. She never worked in construction. She was a housewife and a daughter who regularly cleaned her husband’s and father’s work clothes. They were boilermakers. 

What They Didn’t Know…

It would be one thing if the manufacturers of asbestos-filled materials products didn’t know they were selling deadly wares. The fact is, they did know. The only ones who didn’t know were the people, the victims, who were exposed to the construction materials, car parts, boilermaker supplies, etc. Companies manufactured and used products made with asbestos and knew the dangers they were exposing their employees to – going all the way back to the 1920s. 

They didn’t warn their employees or their employees’ families. They failed to implement any safety or protective measures. They focused on their bottom lines and their growth strategies. In the end, their profits went up. So did the death toll. 

Perhaps the worst – and best – part of these egregious behaviors is that there were filing cabinets full of documented evidence. Evidence Placitella now uses to get his clients compensated for their unimaginable losses.

What is Mesothelioma?

Unfortunately, if you live in Pennsylvania, you likely know too much about this rare form of cancer. Incidence of diagnosis and fatalities from the disease in Pennsylvania is among the highest in the United States. 

Mesothelioma occurs when cancerous cells attack the body’s mesothelium, the protective membrane that covers most internal organs. The mesothelium has different names, depending on its location in the body. For example, the pleura surround the lungs and lines the walls of the chest cavity. The pericardium protects the heart. The peritoneum protects the abdominal wall. Most cases of mesothelioma begin in the pleura or peritoneum and spread to other organs. 

The disease is caused by exposure to deadly asbestos which was used to manufacture countless widely used materials up until the 1970s and in some cases until the 1990s. Many people diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma were employed in, or exposed to people employed in, industries or jobs where they were worked with products containing asbestos fibers. The vast majority of the up to 3,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed annually in the U.S. have afflicted people who worked in industries such as auto repair, construction, textiles, shipyard work, farming, railroad, and some types of manufacturing. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 2,574 Americans died in 2010 from mesothelioma. These harrowing numbers have yet to peak, predicts Placitella. The disease has an incubation period of up to 50 years, which means that countless people exposed have yet to be diagnosed. Further, though asbestos hasn’t been used in manufacturing in 20 years, untold amounts of the poison still exist in materials. 

Spreading the Word and Making a Difference

Placitella’s first case out of Syracuse Law School in 1981, the precedent-setting asbestos case Beshada v. Johns-Manville Products Corp., provided him with his calling. He is now one of the country’s leading legal authorities on mass tort, class actions, and asbestos-related diseases. Additionally, his wife’s grandfather died of the disease. His personal interest in the topic, combined with the wealth of experience he received working with labor unions in the Johns-Manville case, provided him with a firm foundation for his legal career.  

In addition to tirelessly fighting for compensation for people diagnosed with the disease, Placitella feels a duty to people who may be exposing themselves to deadly asbestos right now… as you read this. “There are young kids in apprentice programs around the country hoping to work for labor unions doing work that will unknowingly expose them to asbestos,” he said. Placitella points squarely at the capital improvement work being done in schools and other buildings all across the US. As dry wall is torn down and replaced and systems are upgraded, construction workers are being exposed to asbestos.

“It’s incredible to think that in 2014 people are about to unknowingly get involved in work that will expose them to asbestos. When they enter a building and find a pipe with asbestos, all work stops. They cordon off the area, bag and box the pipe. Everyone is on alert,” he explained. “What they don’t realize is that every joint of the 25-year-old wall they are knocking down is covered with asbestos-filled joint compound.”

Placitella teaches apprentice classes for labor unions to try to make young workers aware of the dangers. “Just because these products aren’t being manufactured anymore doesn’t mean you won’t be exposed. In fact, without taking the proper precautions, if you works in certain types of jobs, you will likely be exposed.”

What You Need to Know…Now

The good news is that if you are told you have mesothelioma, medicine has progressed the last 10 years to the point where the diagnosis might not be a death sentence. Ten years ago, life expectancy was 18 months at most. “Today, depending on the type of disease and how early you get diagnosed, you may have a chance at survival,” Placitella said. 

Unfortunately, he said, the odds aren’t on survival. For most people, diagnosis comes far too late. And, while he understands people aren’t focused on a lawsuit when they’ve been told they have a fatal disease, they need to know they have a small window to make sure they are compensated for medical bills, lost pay and money that will help their families after they’ve passed. There is a two-year statute of limitations, from date of diagnosis, in most states, including Pennsylvania. This deadline dictates how long you can wait before filing a case against the company or companies responsible for the asbestos exposure. “You lose all rights to sue after two years,” said Placitella. 

So, first things first: see your doctor, get diagnosed and begin what will hopefully be life-saving, if not life-sustaining, treatment. Next, speak with an attorney who has the experience and knowledge to help you hold the offending companies responsible for their outrageous negligent behavior. 

If you have been significantly exposed to asbestos and yet to be diagnosed and are not experiencing symptoms, get an x-ray at least once a year. That way, you will have a baseline for the doctors to compare in case symptoms do appear.

Placitella takes a long pause as he considers his next piece of advice. “You know, it’s very hard to discuss legal issues with someone who has had their world turned upside down. They are coming to terms with their situation and trying to get their affairs in order. They don’t want to spend time in a courtroom. I know this and I understand this. However, I’ve become very close with far too many people fighting this fight. I’ve attended far too many funerals. I’ve been the one holding the hand of a client who has become my friend as he takes his last breaths.”

He continues offering a last piece of advice, clearly with a heavy heart. “In this kind of work, you get very close to clients. At this terrible time in their lives, a lawyer can play a unique and important role. These are people who are dying at the hands of companies who knew what they were doing to employees and said nothing. These people, my clients, have never had a voice. I can be that voice now. At a time when life is most unkind, they can rely on me. My clients know that I am going to stand up for them and their families, seeking justice, until the end.”

If you or someone you love is suffering from asbestos-related exposure, or you believe you have been exposed to the deadly substance, don’t hesitate to contact Christopher M. Placitella, Esq., Cohen, Placitella & Roth, at cplacitella@cprlaw.com. Call 732.747.9003 or visit cprlaw.com.

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