Roland Leo Grenier Sr.s specialty was brakes and clutches.
The 79-year-old retired mechanic repaired thousands of cars during his 38-year career, first at an Oldsmobile dealership, and then at a repair shop, both in Pawtucket.
What Grenier didn't know was that with every clutch disc and brake pad he handled, he was exposing himself to invisible particles of asbestos, a known carcinogen.
After a 10-year stint as a school custodian in Cumberland, Grenier moved from his home in Pawtucket to retire in Florida in the late 1990s.
Two years ago, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an incurable form of cancer of the lungs thats almost always caused by asbestos exposure.
Earlier this month, a jury in Delawares New Castle County Superior Court awarded Grenier $2 million in compensatory damages, after it found that General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. were liable for his illness.
His attorneys contended that his years of work with brake pads and clutch parts, both of which contained asbestos, were responsible for his cancer. The jury found that GM was 70-percent liable and Ford was 16-percent liable. The rest of the liability rested with seven other companies that Grenier sued.
Mr. Grenier had no idea that the products he used while providing for his wife and children would later threaten his life, said Rick Nemeroff, an attorney with Nemeroff Law Firm, based in Dallas, who represented Grenier.
Its gratifying to see that the jury agreed that these companies should be held responsible for the pain and suffering caused by their products.
Were disappointed in the jury's verdict, said Geri Lama, a spokeswoman for GM. She added that the auto manufacturer hasn't yet decided what its next step will be.
Our sympathies go out to Mr. Grenier and his family, said Kristen Kinley, a spokeswoman for Ford. However, expert studies have shown that automobile mechanics are not at an increased risk of developing asbestos-related disease as compared to the general population, she said.
Additionally, we believe that Mr. Grenier's exposure to asbestos in his previous work as a school custodian, where he had contact with floor tile, steam pipes and boilers, caused his illness. We are disappointed in the jury's ruling and we are currently evaluating our options.
Grenier's son, Roland Leo Grenier Jr., who is taking care of his father at the elders West Palm Beach home, said by telephone that their attorneys advised them not to speak to the media and declined to comment further.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, was once called a miracle fiber because it is strong, fire resistant and works well as a thermal insulator. It was widely used from the 1930s to the 1970s in products such as pipe insulation, sprayed-on fireproofing, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, brake pads, clutch facings, plasters, adhesives, gaskets, packing materials, asbestos gloves, siding shingles, roofing materials and firemens clothing, according to the Maryland Department of Environmental Management.
Numerous studies have linked asbestos with certain types of diseases, including cancer, and in 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned all new uses of asbestos. Symptoms of asbestos-related illnesses may not emerge for 30 years or more.
Some 730,000 people in the United State filed compensation claims for asbestos-related injuries between the early 1970s and the end of 2002, costing businesses and insurance companies more than $70 billion, according to a 2005 research brief by the RAND Corporation.
The cases are continuing. Just three weeks ago, General Electric Co. said it expected to take a $115-million charge in the first quarter relating to a court ruling on its asbestos liability, according to Reuters news service.
The number of asbestos claims increased sharply through the 1990s and into 2002, according to the RAND report. The number of claims made by people with mesothelioma, the type of cancer Grenier has, also has been increasing, nearly doubling between 1994 and 2002, the report said.
Mesothelioma is a disease in which cells of the mesothelium a membrane that covers and protects internal organs become abnormal and divide without control or order, according to the Web site of the National Cancer Institute. About 2,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States each year, the NCI said. A history of asbestos exposure at work is reported in about 70 percent to 80 percent of all cases.
According to Grenier's lawsuit, his automotive career began in 1942 as a mechanic for the now-defunct Frank Crook Oldsmobile Dealership in Pawtucket. He worked there until 1952, when he moved to Lumb Motors Garage, also in Pawtucket. He spent the next 28 years at Lumb.
As a GM Certified Technician, Grenier's specialty was repairing brakes and clutches, said Bruce Vincent, a spokesman for Baron & Budd, a Dallas law firm that also represented Grenier.
He did between 1 and 10 repairs a day, adding up to thousands upon thousands of brake jobs, Vincent said. Grenier's primary exposure to asbestos came from brake pads that were once manufactured by auto makers, such as GM and Ford, containing 50 percent asbestos, Vincent said.
Grenier came in contact with asbestos particles when he opened the box containing the brake pads, when he ground and filed the pads to fit on the brake drum, and when he blew compressed air on the brake assembly to clean out the accumulated dust, Vincent said.
Between 1980 and 1993, Grenier worked for the Cumberland School Department as a custodian at the Community Grade School and at Cumberland High School. He may have been exposed to some asbestos in that job, said Nemeroff, although it was minor compared with his work as an auto mechanic.
After retiring to the West Palm Beach area, Grenier was diagnosed with cancer, Nemeroff said. Grenier filed suit against GM, Ford, and dozens of other companies that were engaged in the mining, manufacturing, sale or installation of asbestos or asbestos-containing products.
Many of those companies were found not liable for Grenier's illness, and may have been dropped from the suit, Nemeroff said. In some cases, the companies may have reached their own settlements with Grenier, Nemeroff said.
Grenier was too ill to travel to Delaware for the three-week trial, Nemeroff said. Instead, Grenier was brought by ambulance from his home in Florida to a nearby facility that had video-conference capabilities, where his testimony was broadcast to the court.
The suit was filed in Delaware, Nemeroff said, because the companies being sued were incorporated in Delaware.
The four-man, eight-woman jury deliberated for 10 hours over two days before delivering its verdict.
Mr. Grenier had no idea that the products he used while providing for his wife and children would later threaten his life.