Nonprofit Executives Plead Not Guilty in Asbestos Exposure Case

06/11/2010 // Chicago, IL, USA // Cooney & Conway // Mesothelioma attorneys: Cooney & Conway

Three former executives of a California nonprofit pleaded not guilty May 31 to allegations that they exposed high school students to asbestos. The men, who had surrendered to authorities a week earlier, were each charged with five felony counts of child endangerment and five felony counts of knowingly exposing an individual to harmful materials.

Rudy Buendia III, 47; Patrick Bowman, 43; and Joseph Cuellar, 70, had been employed by Firm Build—a now-defunct organization that offered job-training programs to high school students—when they allegedly instructed students to remove asbestos from the Automotive Training Center at Castle Commercial Center in Atwater, Calif., from September 2005 to March 2006.

Prosecutors contend that the students—with no knowledge that they were working with a hazardous material—removed asbestos floor tiles and asbestos insulation from pipes inside the building. They were also instructed to demolish the tiles with hammers and other tools, releasing asbestos fibers and particles into the air, where they could easily be inhaled.

The students,16 and 17 years old at the time of the work, told investigators the dust inside the building was so thick, they sometimes had to leave for fresh air.

Asbestos exposure has long been linked to deadly diseases, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the protective lining that covers many internal organs.

Mesothelioma—in almost all cases, the result of inhaling asbestos fibers—can take decades after exposure to develop and is nearly always fatal. In recent years, mesothelioma lawyers have been successful in obtaining multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements from employers, manufacturers, and property owners who knew of the risks of asbestos but did little, or nothing, to eliminate them.

In interviews with law enforcement officials, students in the California case say that they were never told asbestos was present, nor issued appropriate safety gear, such as protective clothing. Instead, they were issued only cotton masks, hard hats, and goggles.

California—like other states—has strict rules in place regarding asbestos work, abatement, and removal, and requires that workers who might be exposed to the material be provided suitable equipment and training.

Prosecutors contend that proper procedures were not followed by the Firm Build executives, whose goal, they say, was simply to cut corners and save money over the course of the project.

At Monday’s arraignment hearing, the courtroom was packed with family and other supporters of the three men. Several letters in support of Buendia, including one from Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo, were submitted to the presiding judge, Donald J. Proietti.

But if the allegations are proven, this case would be particularly troubling, even when compared to the many mesothelioma lawsuits that have previously been litigated.

Continual exposure to asbestos—such as the months-long period alleged here—only increases the risk for mesothelioma and other cancers. And because of the long dormancy period of asbestos-related illnesses, any students who become sick would likely do so in their 30s, 40s, or 50s—in the prime of life.

This news story was brought to you by the asbestos and mesothelioma lawyers Chicago at Cooney & Conway. For more than 50 years, our litigators have been assisting—and fighting for—those needlessly injured by the negligence and wrongful actions of others. In the process, we’ve handled, and successfully concluded, some of the country’s most significant asbestos lawsuits, bringing comfort and compensation to victims of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related diseases.

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