Former paper worker can sue over wife’s death, court rules

EVERETT — For years in the 1950s, Larry Rochon returned to his home in the Riverside area with dust on his clothes from his job at what was then Scott Paper Co.

His wife, Adeline, dutifully went to the utility room, shook off his work clothing and put it in the old wringer washer.

Neither of them knew until 2004 that his clothing apparently contained deadly asbestos fibers.

Adeline Rochon was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a fatal form of cancer of the lungs’ lining, in November 2004 It almost always is caused by asbestos. In May 2006, she died at age 70.

“We were 39 days short of being married for 50 years,” said Larry Rochon, 74.

A lawsuit Rochon filed claiming negligence came to an abrupt halt in 2006 when a Snohomish County judge ruled that the employer’s obligation to foresee the danger of asbestos does not carry over to Rochon’s family.

The lawsuit was revived last week when a state Court of Appeals panel unanimously said that the employer has a duty to protect a worker’s family as well as the worker.

The ruling sets a precedent, said Rochon’s lawyer, Matthew Bergman of Seattle.

“We won the right to present the case to a jury,” Bergman said. “For the first time a Washington court says an employer has a duty to protect family members from asbestos on workers’ clothes.”

Kimberly-Clark Worldwide Inc. has since purchased Scott Paper Co. Its manager, Chris Isenberg, is new to the plant. He said he’s not familiar with the case. The attorney who represented the company, Michael Mattingly of Portland, Ore., could not be reached Friday for comment.

Bergman said he doesn’t know whether Kimberly-Clark will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

When Rochon found out that he could continue to seek justice in his wife’s death, he “was very excited.”

“I think it’s a breakthrough,” he said Friday.

For nine years, Rochon worked at Scott, sometimes helping pipefitters on lines that were insulated with material containing asbestos, he said. He also worked on rigging cranes to lift heavy rolls of paper, also around asbestos, he said.

“I brought (asbestos) home to my family from work,” he said. Adeline Rochon “did my laundry, and of course she shook the dust out of my pants.”

He alleges that his wife breathed in asbestos fibers and for 41 years carried them in her body. Symptoms of mesothelioma often don’t appear for 20 to 50 years.

“I was mad at the fact I worked with asbestos and didn’t know it,” Rochon said. “There was never a sign up saying it could cause cancer. I didn’t know anything about it.”

The Rochons, both born in Everett, raised seven children, all who remain in or near Snohomish County. His wife’s medical bills ate his savings, and he thinks his children deserve money from the lawsuit.

After graduating from Everett High School, he joined the U.S. Navy and served in the Korean War. He started at Scott after getting out of the service, and worked there nine years. Later, he went into cleaning and the beer distribution businesses.

“She was a real family gal,” he said of Adeline. “Everything was for the kids.”

She never smoked, and after the couple started having babies early in their marriage, she never worked outside the home.

“She suffered a lot,” daughter Kathleen Rochon said of her mother’s final months. “It’s not a very nice death.”

Once the diagnosis was made, doctors told the Rochons there was nothing they could do to treat the cancer, Larry Rochon said.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could go back and change things,” he said. “My wife was a wonderful woman who took pride in caring for her family.”

Another reason to continue the lawsuit, he said, is to help other families of workers who may be affected by asbestos brought into the house on clothing.

“There are a lot of people now who could come forward,” Rochon said.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or jhaley@heraldnet.com.

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