Ford Spent $40 Million to Reshape Asbestos Science

Jim Morris - The Center for Public Integrity, February 16,2016

In 2001, toxicologist Dennis Paustenbach got a phone call from a lawyer for Ford Motor Company.

The lawyer, Darrell Grams, explained that Ford had been losing lawsuits filed by former auto mechanics alleging asbestos in brakes had given them mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer virtually always tied to asbestos exposure. Grams asked Paustenbach, then a vice president with the consulting firm Exponent, if he had any interest in studying the disease’s possible association with brake work. A meeting cemented the deal.

Paustenbach, a prolific author of scientific papers who’d worked with Grams on Dow Corning’s defense against silicone breast-implant illness claims, had barely looked at asbestos to that point. “I really started to get serious about studying asbestos after I met Mr. Grams, that’s for sure,” Paustenbach testified in a sworn deposition in June 2015. Before that, he said, the topic “wasn’t that interesting to me.”

Thus began a relationship that, according to recent depositions, has enriched Exponent by $18.2 million and brought another $21 million to Cardno ChemRisk, a similar firm Paustenbach founded in 1985, left and restarted in 2003. All told, testimony shows, Ford has spent nearly $40 million funding journal articles and expert testimony concluding there is no evidence brake mechanics are at increased risk of developing mesothelioma. This finding, repeated countless times in courtrooms and law offices over the past 15 years, is an attempt at scientific misdirection aimed at extricating Ford from lawsuits, critics say.

“They’ve published a lot, but they’ve really produced no new science,” saidJohn Dement, a professor in Duke University’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and an asbestos researcher for more than four decades. “Fifteen years ago, I thought the issue of asbestos risk assessment was pretty much defined. All they’ve accomplished is to try to generate doubt where, really, little doubt existed.”

The glut of corporate-financed science has yielded mixed results. Exponent had a role in jury trials won by Ford in St. Louis and Pittsburgh last year, for example, and in a trial Ford lost in Tennessee. Judges have noted the infusion of controversy into a subject that for many years was not controversial in the least. A veteran asbestos judge in Wayne County, Michigan, wrote in an opinion that he’d never encountered the argument that “the science was not there” on mesothelioma and brakes until he heard a case involving an Exponent witness.

The discord over brakes bankrolled by Ford “has, in certain cases, tipped the scales for the defendants with juries,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Jon Ruckdeschel. “More frequently, it has been used by industry lawyers to increase the costs and burdens on the courts and sick mechanics by creating a tidal wave of pre-trial litigation regarding the ‘science.’ ”

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