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Orcutt family wins $13M wrongful death suit against Hillshire Brands Co.
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Orcutt family wins $13M wrongful death suit against Hillshire Brands Co.

Award stems from Union Sugar plant asbestos case

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An Orcutt family has been awarded $13 million in damages by an Alameda County civil jury, which found Hillshire Brands Co., now known as Tyson Foods, liable this week in the death of Mark Lopez, who died in July 2015 from mesothelioma.

After his death, the Lopez family hired Jeffrey Kaiser, of Kaiser Gornick LLP in Walnut Creek, and filed a wrongful death suit in October 2015. The suit stemmed from an investigation that found an abandoned plant six miles west of Santa Maria, formerly owned by Union Sugar, used vast amounts of asbestos insulation as it turned beets into sugar.

The suit claimed Lopez, who was 61 at the time of his death, contracted mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure growing up in the small company town of Betteravia, which surrounded the plant in the 1950s. 

Hillshire Brands countered the suit, stating that there was no negligence on the part of the company, and any injury or damage was the responsibility of Lopez or anyone who came in contact with "the product or premises." 

On Wednesday afternoon, following three weeks of testimony and four hours of deliberations, the jury found Hillshire acted negligently while operating the refinery in the '50s, and that Lopez's death was directly related to the corporation's actions.

The jury also found that none of the product manufacturers were responsible for Lopez's illness, and that Hillshire Brands was solely to blame.

The town 

Now known as an abandoned ghost town, Betteravia was founded in 1897 and grew up around the Union Sugar plant. At its height, it had about 60 homes, a hotel, church, schoolhouse, post office, a general store, gas station, recreational center and a fire department. 

The majority of Betteravia residents worked at the Union Sugar plant, which went through several owners before it closed in 1993.

The Lopez family lived in Betteravia, and some of its members, including Lopez's grandfather and father, worked at the sugar refinery. Lopez was born in Betteravia in 1954 and spent most of his childhood there, until his family moved to Santa Maria in the mid 1960s. 

Most of the year the asbestos was contained in the piping and boiler room walls of the plant. But twice a year the plant closed for maintenance, and workers removed the asbestos using claw hammers and other tools. Many times it was fed through an electric grinder to be reused as stucco, according to court testimony. 

"It's an extremely dangerous process if you consider the amount of asbestos released to the air," Kaiser said. "There was a dump on site where the asbestos was taken and many children played there, including Mark himself. That entire town of Betteravia was contaminated."

Asbestos hazards

Decades before Lopez was born, asbestos hazards were known to the industrial, scientific and medical community, and knowledge that asbestos exposure could cause cancer was made public around the time of his birth, according to the civil complaint.

"At all times when [Mark] lived on the premises and came into contact with others" who worked at the plant, "it was determined that asbestos exposure could cause the incurable cancer called mesothelioma," the complaint read. "It was known to the industrial, scientific, and medical community that specific precautions had to be taken when working with and around asbestos." 

The complaint further alleged that Hillshire Brands had a duty to inspect the refinery, and make the place safe for workers, and that the company neglected to inform employees about the risk of working in dangerous conditions.

When Lopez lived in Betteravia from 1954 to the mid 1960s, he was exposed to asbestos and contracted mesothelioma, despite never working at the refinery himself, Kaiser said. He continued to be exposed to it even after the family moved to Santa Maria years later.

The complaint accused Hillshire of allowing asbestos and products containing asbestos to be used and disposed of on the premises without consulting with properly-trained safety experts and medical personnel, failing to maintain a safe workplace, and failing to understand the state and federal health/safety regulations concerning asbestos. 

Other companies that were part of the refinery operation and worked with Hillshire included what is now known as Johns-Manville, Fibreboard/Pabco, Anchor Packing and Garlock, and often designed and manufactured the asbestos-containing products, according to Kaiser's complaint. 

Hillshire's defense

In Hillshire's defense, attorneys said the misuse of the products supplied by Hillshire that resulted in injury/damage was not intentional, and that "any damage or loss must be apportioned accordingly." All parties, not just Hillshire, should be to blame, they said.

If such losses were incurred due to a defect, "such a defect was not present at the time the product/premises left the custody of Hillshire," the response argued. Furthermore, Hillshire had no connection with the manufacture, distribution of any maintenance equipment in the refinery, and the company should not be held liable for any events following Lopez's cancer diagnosis. 

Hillshire argued that any disease Lopez contracted as a child was not the company's fault and resulted from his own negligence, fault and error. "The decedent should have known the risk, harm or danger, posed by the use of products allegedly at issue in this case," the response read. 

On Thursday, Hillshire issued a statement saying "Our sympathies are with the Lopez family, but we do not believe the death of Mark Lopez was caused by anything that may have occurred at the Union Sugar plant in the 1960s or '70s."

The statement went on to say that the company would appeal the verdict.

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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