Supreme Court questions who is responsible in two sailors’ deaths

Oct. 10, 2018
Washington D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday to determine corporate liability in the cancer-related deaths of two Navy sailors exposed to asbestos.

John DeVries and Kenneth McAfee, represented in the case by their widows, worked on naval ships in the 1970s to1980s, regularly maintaining equipment containing asbestos.

Shay Dvoretzky, representing the Air and Liquid Systems Corp., argued the company could not be found responsible for the sailors’ illness because their products did not contain asbestos at the time of the sale. The asbestos was added after the machinery was sold to the Navy.

The court’s liberal justices immediately challenged the company’s denial of responsibility, arguing it was clear their product would need to contain asbestos,

Washington D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday to determine corporate liability in the cancer-related deaths of two Navy sailors exposed to asbestos.

John DeVries and Kenneth McAfee, represented in the case by their widows, worked on naval ships in the 1970s to1980s, regularly maintaining equipment containing asbestos.

Shay Dvoretzky, representing the Air and Liquid Systems Corp., argued the company could not be found responsible for the sailors’ illness because their products did not contain asbestos at the time of the sale. The asbestos was added after the machinery was sold to the Navy.

The court’s liberal justices immediately challenged the company’s denial of responsibility, arguing it was clear their product would need to contain asbestos,  a carcinogen known to cause cancer.

“They’re making a product that is useless unless the asbestos is added,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “So they know that the sale of this equipment is dependent upon asbestos being incorporated into it.”  

The case, because the complaint is related to a Navy ship, falls under maritime law, which has a different set of standards than civil law.

Thomas Goldstein, representing the two sailors’ widows, argued the company still had a responsibility toward those affected by the asbestos.  “If you make a product and the ordinary use of that product is going to cause a harm that you know about, then you need to warn about it.”

This led the court’s conservative-leaning justices to question the consequences of carrying corporate liability too far.

“Do you see any other downsides to expanding the scope of the duty to warn in this way?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked Dvoretzky. “I’m talking as a matter of doctrine and policy.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, newly appointed to the court following a tumultuous confirmation process, also pressed the lawyer to explain how placing too much responsibility on companies could lead to over warning.

“Why are too many warnings bad?” Kavanaugh asked. “Why is that bad? You said too many warnings – explain that to me.”

Justice Elena Kagan questioned Dvoretzky’s explanation that too many warnings would lead people to ignore them. “At most, you have two warnings here… I would think that that’s kind of good,” Kagan said.

Throughout the oral arguments, a few justices turned to hypothetical scenarios to illustrate the consequences of broadening the understanding of liability, questioning whether companies had to anticipate every possible danger. From an ashtray causing lung cancer to a battery leaking acid, the justices pushed the sailors’ lawyers to explain how far one can take corporate responsibility.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor described a recent instance of buying a flashlight, which warned her not to store it with the battery.

“Did you feel over warned?” Kagan asked to laugher.

The court is expected to issue the ruling on Air and Liquid Systems Corp v. Devries in January.

Coalition of nonprofits and grassroots work towards family reunification

August 15, 2018

It’s ironic, her teenager limiting her phone usage at night, but also another sign of the job’s increasing demands following President Trump’s family separation policy, acknowledges a director at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice, with her team at the WRC have worked long hours and hired short-term contract workers since April to combat the separation of more than 2,500 migrant children. Although Trump’s policy has been halted and the majority of children have been returned to their families, the WRC is working towards reunifying the remaining 410 children whose parents have already left the country, according to Brané.

“We really haven’t had a weekend since this started,” she said.

More than a week after the court-ordered deadline to reunite the separated families passed, it’s unclear what governmental or nonprofit organization will be responsible for tracing the remaining parents in their countries of origin and facilitating reunification.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the name of the separated parents, called for the government to take “significant and prompt steps” to find the remaining parents.

In the ACLU’s filing, they insist “the government must bear the ultimate burden of finding the parents.” And yet, according to the ACLU, the databases provided by the U.S. government show no helpful information for 120 parents.

In light of the government’s seeming lack of action in locating the deported parents, many nonprofits like the WRC are stepping forward. It’s a task that requires more hours from organizations already stretched thin.

As the ACLU’s filing underlines, the process of reuniting the remaining families requires “a degree of detective work.” An area the WRC, as an advocacy and policy-focused organization, is not setup to handle alone.

“We’ve never had to be on the ground looking for bodies in villages before,” Brané said.

This urgent need for expertise beyond their own scope has led to a new and ever-shifting network of nonprofits and grassroots movements dedicated to the reunification of the separated families.

While the WRC maintains and updates a database of the missing parents, the progress in their cases, and the final outcomes, they’ve partnered with another organization to be those boots on the ground.

Cathleen Caron, executive director and founder of Justice in Motion, admits that at eight full-time staff members, JiM is “the smallest player by far.” But their network of 44 partner organizations, known as the defender network, stretches through El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico.

Founded on the premise that “wherever migrants go their rights go,” JiM has been defending the rights of, and when necessary, tracking individuals across borders since their founding in 2005, according to Caron. A skillset and network that has proved useful when locating deported parents.

During the initial public outcry in April, JiM knew they had the network in other countries to locate parents but “felt restrained to respond” because they lacked the resources stateside, said Caron.

Joining a network of organizations alongside the WRC, the ACLU, the International Rescue Committee, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, Kids in Need of Defense, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops freed Caron and her team to utilize their unique skillset.

But it can still be a painstakingly slow process.

The fact that many of these migrants fled for fear of their lives further complicates the process of identifying them, acknowledges Caron. Hesitant to reach out in any official capacity to the countries of origin, the defender network instead utilizes church networks, local contacts, fliers, and community radio spots.

With a news cycle that churns with crisis after crisis, nonprofits like JiM and WRC are networking with grassroots movements to galvanize public support.

“It’s our obligation to act when our government, with all its resources, says it isn’t their responsibility,” Roya Salehi, a spokesperson for Grannies Respond, said.

The group, formed on Facebook following the initial outcry against the forced separation, is on a cross-country journey. Thirty grandmas, in two 15-person vans, a minivan, and a camper, left New York City on July 31 bound for a rally in McAllen, Texas.

Salehi and her fellow grandmothers plan to join with five other caravans originating from Portland, Tallahassee, Madison, Dallas, and Atlanta. They’ll converge in McAllen on August 6 for what they’re calling “24 hours of action.”

“We can do this instead of sitting home and watching it on the news,” said Janice Blair, 67, a grandmother traveling with Grannies Respond.

Lawyer Moms of America, another movement that went from Facebook group to grassroots organization, hosted a nationwide event on July 28. Kids Take a Stand, encouraged families to raise funds to cover legal expenses by hosting a lemonade stand. The event raised $35,000 in one weekend, with 112 lemonade stands, in 91 cities, across 38 states, according to Natalie Roisman, a spokesperson for the group.

“Our responsibility is to make sure it doesn’t slip from the headlines,” Roisman said. “We will not rest until every one of those families is reunited.”