Because of the lax causation standard in Newport News and the limitations placed on asbestos defendants, the critical evidence often comes down to the testimony and documentations about the products and materials to which the plaintiff was allegedly exposed. Defendants rely upon third-party (often government) documents, as well as expert testimony, either to call into question whether their product was present at a plaintiff’s worksite or to prove the presence of alternative and more potent sources of exposure, such as amphibole-containing thermal insulation. In a typical case involving a former sailor in other juris- dictions, such evidence includes Navy ship drawings, speci cations, and other government documents presented by a well-qualified Navy expert to demonstrate the vast amount of asbestos-containing insulation throughout the vessel. In Newport News, however, the admissibility of this evidence has been subject to an absurdly exacting requirement of direct proof that these other asbestos-containing products were being used in the plaintiff’s workspace while the plaintiff was working in that compartment – proof that decades later simply does not exist.
Newport News is also an outlier in its categorical ban against the admissibility of Navy/employer knowledge of asbestos hazards. The circuit court prohibits such evidence for purposes of a “sophisticated purchaser” defense, although the issue is debatable as a matter of Virginia law. Other courts have allowed defendants to argue that the Navy was the sole cause of a harm (e.g., enlisted men had to use the products regardless). The information is also relevant to issues for which it should be admissible, such as the “state of the art.”
In addition, Newport News asbestos cases lack transparency with respect to alternative sources of exposure. The ATRF examined Newport News practices in light of In re Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC a watershed opinion by a North Carolina federal bankruptcy judge. There, the court found that Garlock’s participation in the tort system “was infected by the manipulation of exposure evidence by plaintiffs and their lawyers.” The judge said that “it was a regular practice by many plaintiffs’ firms to delay filing trust claims for their clients so that the remaining tort system defendants would not have that information.” The “withholding of exposure evidence by plaintiffs and their lawyers was significant and had the effect of unfairly inflating the recoveries against Garlock.” Publicly available data indicate that millions of dollars of asbestos bankruptcy trust payments have been recovered post-verdict by asbestos plaintiffs in Newport News.