In this podcast, Paul Kelley talks with John Maher about asbestos at AT&T in Louisville, KY. He explains how employees, contractors, and customers may have been exposed to asbestos. Then, he outlines how to file a lawsuit if you contracted mesothelioma or lung cancer due to exposure.
John Maher: Hi, I am John Maher. I’m here today with Paul Kelley. Paul is a partner with the Kentucky personal injury law firm Satterley & Kelley, which has over 30 years of collective experience in handling cases involving mesothelioma and asbestos exposure. Today, we’re talking about mesothelioma cases at AT&T in Louisville, Kentucky. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Kelley: Good morning, John. How are you doing?
John: Good, thanks. I think most people have heard of AT&T phone company, but tell me a little bit more about at AT&T’s presence in Louisville, Kentucky.
Paul: Well, AT&T’s presence is everywhere. They’re our phone company, and they have had an interesting history over the years. For those of us that are old enough, and I think you and I both qualify there, John, there was the original Ma Bell.
Of course, it broke up in the early 1980s because it was a huge monopoly. I mean, I think AT&T at one point probably employed over a million people nationwide. It provided long distance telephone service coast to coast. In the 1980s, the federal government made it break up and it broke up into what are called the Baby Bells.
We won’t get too far into the weeds, but what ultimately happened is when AT&T busted up, there were all these other regional Bell companies that opened up. Here in Kentucky, it was South Central Bell, and further south I think it was Southeastern Bell, and out West it was Pacific Bell, and in Texas area, Southwestern Bell. All these Baby Bells crept up, and eventually the Baby Bells got huge.
What ultimately happened is one of the Baby Bells got so big that it bought the old original AT&T, and the old AT&T became the subsidiary of…I think it was Southwestern Bell. And then Southwestern Bell renamed themselves to AT&T.
It’s been a fascinating journey in that regard. But what AT&T did back in the day before it was busted up is it controlled every facet of the telephone service. It had other subsidiaries. It had a subsidiary called Bell Laboratories, and Bell Laboratories was the research arm of the company.
It was also the safety arm of the overall company. It had Western Electric, which was the manufacturing and installation service of the company. A lot of people don’t know this. We all run around with our cell phones today and a few people have landlines.
But back in the day when you got a telephone, you didn’t go to the store to buy it. It came from the phone company. You couldn’t go to whatever the store was. Here in Kentucky, Targets are big. You didn’t go to Target and buy a phone. You had to get it from the telephone company. Western Electric made those phones. Western Electric made those phones basically at the behest of AT&T, and Western Electric charged AT&T a big premium for those phones. And then AT&T charged you through your services to cover the cost of those phones.
And that’s one of the reasons why they broke up is because there was no competitor and they were able to charge you essentially whatever they wanted to charge you. That was the history and what was interesting of how we got to where we are today. But to answer your question more directly as how it’s related to asbestos, well, really a couple ways. Every major hub city has what’s called a central office, and the central office is essentially what controls your phone service. Here in Louisville, we have a nine-story building and it’s downtown.
It’s been in existence forever, 1950s, and it’s occupied both by AT&T, or historically it was occupied by AT&T, and then it was also occupied by South Central Bell, which was the local phone company. AT&T controlled your long distance service and South Central Bell controlled your local and AT&T was your long distance. I misspoke. They had floors also there that were dedicated to just equipment, just the equipment that operated all the phones. There’s all these wires and cables that are running through the building.
And what a phenomenal fire hazard that is. Because in order to run wiring cable from floor to floor and from room to room, you have to drill holes or put holes in the walls. When you put holes in the walls, it creates the prospect of massive airflow, and the prospect of massive airflow can mean a fire results in the entire place engulfed in flames. And not only is a building destroyed and, God help us, a lot of people could get injured or killed, but we lose our phone service.
It was very important to AT&T at all of these central offices throughout the United States, including Louisville, to make sure that if there was a fire that busted out, that it would only impact the location of where that fire occurred, and hopefully they could prevent it from expanding to other floors and devastating the whole operation. In order to do that, they would cover the holes in the floors with something called transite. The transite is historically an asbestos containing product, and it’s basically a piece of cement that has asbestos fibers in it.
Everybody’s seen cement before, so you know what that looks like. Well, this one has asbestos in it, and the reason it does is because asbestos was very heat-resistant. It could prevent the degradation of the product so that they wouldn’t have to constantly replace this piece of transite. Well, it’s hard to explain, but if you’ve got a communication cable and you need to run it from floor eight to floor nine, you’re drilling a hole in floor nine and a hole in the ceiling of floor eight. You have to keep that completely and entirely airtight.
But you’re not just putting one piece of cable in at a time, they might put in 10 at a time. But that piece of that area, that specific area, might be able to hold 25, 30 cables. You put the first 10 in, but you’re going to expand that particular opening at some point in time to maybe 30. In order to fit 30 cables in, that hole has to be bigger. The people who installed those cables, they were constantly cutting into this transite material. They would take a band saw or some circular saw and they would cut into it.
It had to be precision. There couldn’t be any gaps whatsoever. It had to be completely and entirely airtight. Essentially they had to jam those cables in there to make sure that no airflow could come through at all. Folks that did the installation work were heavily exposed when they were cutting into the transite boards. There are dozens, if not hundreds of these boards that were all over these central offices, probably dozens per floor. You’re cutting the transite on the floor.
Now, there’s always going to be a gap between the ceiling and the floor. That’s another opportunity for airflow to come through. One of the things that AT&T did, and they did it way back in the ’50s and ’60s when they started operating these central offices, is they had bags of raw asbestos that they stuffed into these holes. It contained chrysotile asbestos, is I think what we have determined. It was in a flour sack material, so the bags didn’t really do anything to contain what was in them.
They would stuff 20, 30 bags into a hole. Every day that an installer had to work on that particular opening, they had to take the bags out at the beginning of the shift. They had to do whatever cutting was associated with the transite. And then, at the end of the day, they had to put the transite boards back down. They had to put all of those bags back into the holes and make sure that that entire area is sealed as completely as possible to prevent the airflow. We’ve represented people who did those jobs.
Between the transite drilling and that exposure, they got a lot of dust, and then those bags just did nothing to contain the dust. They got a tremendous amount of dust exposure from doing that. Over the years we’ve seen air sampling studies that were taken by these entities. I don’t want to single out AT&T, but you had AT&T, Western Electric, and Bell Laboratories that were all collaborating together on all of this.
In the mid 1970s, they took some air sampling when somebody drilled into those transite boards, and the results were so bad that they said, “We’ve got to get rid of these. We can’t do this anymore.” The good news is that they recognized the hazard and they developed a plan to get them out of there. The bad news is they didn’t take them out all at once. They waited until there was a need to completely replace that board. At that point, they put steel in, and with steel, there are certainly other hazards that may be associated with cutting steel, but not asbestos.
But in 1974 or 1975, they made this determination that this is not a good thing and we have to get this out. But they still had those boards in the 1980s and people were still being exposed to them. It’s the same thing with the bags. They recognized the bags are a hazard. They claimed that there really weren’t that many bags that were at all these offices, but that seems to be contrary to the evidence that we’ve developed over the course of time. Here in Louisville, the central office had hundreds of boards, hundreds of bags.
The people who installed them, which were typically Western Electric employees, got a lot of exposure from doing that. And then the AT&T and the South Central Bell employees, once Western Electric did its job as the installer, once it did that, then the South Central Bell and AT&T employees took over the maintenance work. There may be situations where they had to cut and saw and have exposure to some of these bags and that sort of thing. There are some other things as well that I think are worth mentioning, the telephones that we talked about.
You know what I’m talking about, the old rotary phones that kids today would go crazy with. That’s all you had. They were made of plastic, and there were lots of electrical components that were in those plastic phones. Western Electric made those phones and they made them with asbestos. We didn’t have a facility in Kentucky where they made those phones, but there are facilities throughout the United States where Western Electric made those from molded plastic parts called phenolic molding compounds.
They were exposed to dust from these compounds that were used to make the phones. Eventually, by the time you and I were teenagers, you could walk into a store and buy phones. That was one of the byproducts of the phone breakup, that we weren’t stuck with buying AT&T phones anymore. And that practice largely changed. Then of course they, generally speaking, used other materials to make them.
One other way that we see, or a couple other ways that we see exposures, the floors at these central offices were made from asbestos vinyl tile. They had to drill into the floors as well, so you drill into the transite, but you also have to drill into the floors. The installers would get exposure from drilling into the floors. People that worked out in the field that connected, basically, the lines that went from the building into the poles. Obviously this is sophisticated process, and I’m making it as simple as possible, but I’m sure that people are familiar with the term “conduit”, and conduit is usually a pipe of some sort where all the lines are contained.
Because when you put something underground, you don’t want to have mud and branches and all kinds of things that are growing down, so they protect them in a pipe. For many years, those pipes were made from the same transite materials that the covers were in the central offices. Installers or people that had to maintain those lines would have to use saws to tap into those pipes, and they would get an exposure to asbestos from doing that.
I guess I can’t say this with absolute confidence, but I would venture a guess and say that some of those pipes are still around today and some of our poor telephone workers may still have some exposure to them. But AT&T and all of its related entities, they’ve been heavily involved in asbestos for many years.
They were a part of all the big organizations back in the ’60s and ’70s when asbestos became a bigger topic, National Safety Council and Industrial Hygiene Foundation and all these organizations that learned a lot about asbestos, but then didn’t take all the appropriate steps to protect all their various workers. It’s really fascinating the first time I got involved in one of those cases, really marveled at how AT&T controlled everything for so long.
But ultimately that control was not just a bad thing for consumers like you and me, but it was very bad for the people that had to put all of this in place and had to be exposed to terrible things without really the slightest bit of protection.
John: Right. If you were one of these employees who might’ve been exposed to asbestos, especially these Western Electric installers or the various people that did work in these plants, and now you have lung cancer or asbestosis or mesothelioma, what should you do next?
Paul: Well, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, this cancer, mesothelioma in particular, is a devastating cancer. Right now, the best statistics are that people pass away from it within six to 18 months of diagnosis.
Lung cancer has a much better survival rate, but depending on when it’s caught. People certainly pass away from that. And regardless, they both have terrible treatments that are just time-consuming, expensive, intrusive, and frequently cause a lot of pain and suffering as well.
I always tell people in the abstract before they’ve been diagnosed with this disease that it’s always important to reach out to a lawyer to find out what your rights are. It’s critical, of course, that you get your medical situation in the best control that you can.
Here in Kentucky, we have great doctors that treat this cancer and there are great physicians across the country who perform surgeries and have unique experience. Treating mesothelioma, your chances of survival are so much better, your quality of life is so much better if it’s caught early and the doctors can be aggressive.
Certainly, do everything that you can do to research and determine all of your medical options. Is surgery good for you? Is chemotherapy, radiation? What’s best for you? But unfortunately, while you’re dealing with that, if you’re interested in holding those accountable for what’s happening to you, then you need to contact an attorney immediately. It’s tough because I don’t think that I would’ve guessed the kinds of exposures that we’re talking about here until I got heavily involved in handling these kinds of cases.
I think a lot of lawyers would say, “Oh, well, you worked at the phone company. I mean, what are you doing? You’re putting lines in. There’s probably not an exposure there.” It’s critical to identify an attorney who has handled these kinds of cases, knows who the stable of defendants are, knows what the evidence is, and knows what to do with it. I would encourage folks to really do their research and try to find somebody that meets all of that criteria. Of course, finding somebody that you have a good rapport with, that you feel comfortable with.
I mean, most of my cases last two, three years and, heaven forbid, some last even longer, and you’re going to spend a lot of time with that person. Somebody that you feel like is good for you, that is going to fight for you and be friends with you I think is certainly critical. Not wasting time, John. I mean, that’s really the biggest issue, and I hate it for people.
I hate that they have this medically devastating issue they’re dealing with on one side, but the legal world doesn’t stop for you. Any time wasted has a potentially devastating impact on your ability to hold those accountable for causing you or your loved one this deadly cancer.
John: Speaking of time constraints, is there a statute of limitations on filing a claim against AT&T in Louisville?
Paul: Yeah, that’s a good question. We have a one-year statute of limitations. What that really means is you have a year from the date that you know or should know what your injury is and know or should know what caused that injury.
Typically, that’s easy to figure out. Sometimes it’s not so easy, but what I generally tell people is a year from when you’ve been diagnosed. You don’t want to run the risk of a court determining that you should have known earlier than what you did. Of course, if you hired me, we’re not getting anywhere near that year, unless you came to me late.
But if you came to me a couple weeks or a couple months from diagnosis, we’re filing quickly. It’s very harsh. Our courts don’t have any discretion. If they don’t think that you’ve filed it timely, they can’t help you out even if they want to. Time is of the essence. You want to do everything you can do to preserve evidence. You want to do everything you can do to collect evidence. Hiring the right attorney will help you do that and really point you in the right direction of what you need to do.
And then as I tell everybody, when you hire me or my law firm, once we get the initial information that we need, this is our issue at this point. We worry about the case. We do the things that need to be done in order to be successful for you. You have a very important task, and that’s to be with your family, to continue to fight this cancer and pursue all of the medical treatment and remedies that you can find. Once you get that lawyer part out of the way, then you can get back to focusing on what’s really important, which is your health and spending time with your family.
John: All right. Well, that’s really great information, Paul. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Paul: Thanks, John.
John: For more information about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, visit the law firm of Satterley & Kelley at satterleylaw.com or call 855-385-9532.