Testimony began this week in the asbestos whistleblower trial of a Sonoma State University employee who claims he was fired from his job after calling school officials on-the-carpet for the improper handling of asbestos materials around the Northern California campus.
According to an article in the Press Democrat, the trial centers on plaintiff Thomas R. Sargent of Santa Rosa, California, the school’s long-time environmental health and safety inspector.
His suit alleges that top officials at the school saw to his dismissal after he reported his asbestos-related concerns to state and local officials. Sargent had been employed at the college for nearly a quarter of a decade.
Sargent’s attorneys say the problems started back in 2012 when the inspection officer noticed a white, chalky substance on the top of the three-story physical education building at the Rohnert Park-located university.
Sargent reported his concerns to his boss, citing the fact that he believed the substance to be asbestos. He and his superior decided they would order the roof to be seal coated so as to avoid future problems.
But before that job could be done, the roof had to be cleared of the asbestos dust. Sargent suggested a licensed abatement contractor but, to save money, his boss – Craig Dawson – ordered custodian staff to simply remove the fibers from the roof with a leaf blower, spreading the dust throughout the vicinity of the phys ed building.
“All while the children’s day care center was operating nearby,” Sargent’s lawyer explained to the assembled jury.
It was this incident that Sargent reported to authorities, and shortly after that he received his first negative evaluation. Another episode involving friable asbestos tiles occurred about a year later.
Once again, Sargent reported the infractions to authorities and, again, he received further reprimands and a temporary suspension.
After six reprimands, he was forced to quit in July 2015 and failed to find new employment, his attorney stated, largely due to his whistleblowing activities.
Now, Sargent is seeking $15 million in damages, claiming he was forced to spend his retirement income to stay afloat and alleging that he suffered medical and emotional damages due to the harassment and ultimate loss of his job.
Conversely, attorneys for the university noted in their opening statement that Sargent was a “difficult employee” and that he was bitter for being passed over for promotions.
Furthermore, they downplayed the significance of contaminants found on the sprawling campus, notes the Press Democrat article.
Each year, several cases like Sargent’s are tried in courts around the country. They stem from the fact that many employers – including not only schools but also industrial facilities – assume a casual attitude about asbestos exposure.
What they fail to recognize – or choose to ignore – is the fact that any amount of asbestos exposure is dangerous to human health.
Even a very small encounter with asbestos dust, such as that which was blown from the roof of the Sonoma State University physical education building, can cause grave diseases such as mesothelioma.