For decades, Congoleum made numerous flooring products, including vinyl tiles, flooring felt, and many others, that incorporated asbestos to add strength, durability, and insulating properties. Congoleum was not alone among construction related industries in using asbestos, but it was considered liable in the exposure of many workers and other people to asbestos that subsequently got sick with mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis.
Congoleum faced many lawsuits over exposure and resulting illnesses and eventually was forced to enter bankruptcy and to reorganize. It created an asbestos trust fund at the same time to ensure that current and future victims of the asbestos in Congoleum products would be compensated. The trust is currently active and claims can now be made directly to it.
Although it has been an American company for most of its history, Congoleum actually originated in Scotland. Founder Michael Nairn began making sailcloth in the 1800s and then turned those into painted floor cloths. This innovative and new product for the time became quickly popular because it was an inexpensive and attractive way to cover up dirt floors in the homes of working class people who could not afford wood flooring.
Eventually these painted cloths gave way to another new invention in flooring: linoleum. Nairn didn’t invent it, but he began making and selling it as yet another affordable flooring option. The beginning of the modern Congoleum Corporation was 1886, the year that Nairn’s son, also Michael Nairn, bought property in New Jersey, brought over Scottish workers, and began making and selling flooring in the U.S. as Nairn Linoleum Company.
The company did not become Congoleum until it was acquired by another company that had developed a new type of roofing, called Congo. The material was also suitable for flooring and Congoleum—the name for both the flooring material and the company—was born. Congoleum continued to grow over the decades, expanding its product line with new types of materials and flooring styles. These included vinyl flooring, no-wax flooring, tiles, and others. Some of the new products were developed by Congoleum, while others were acquired through merging with other companies.
Congoleum used asbestos in many of its products, and so by the 1980s it had begun to see asbestos and mesothelioma lawsuits. Workers and people who had worked with and lived with the asbestos flooring were claiming that exposure made them sick. The company survived these lawsuits until it finally began Chapter 11 reorganization in 2003. It emerged in 2010 and still exists today, making innovative, new flooring products.
Asbestos in Congoleum Products
Asbestos is an unusual mineral in that it is lightweight and fibrous, yet strong. It can be used to add strength and durability to materials, like flooring. It can also be used to insulate against heat, electricity, chemicals, and fire. For flooring, asbestos was useful in adding durability and strength, while also adding some insulation to help keep homes from losing heat. Asbestos is readily available and for a long period of time was mined and easy and inexpensive to get.
When it was finally determined that the inhalation of asbestos fibers could lead to such deadly illnesses as mesothelioma and lung cancer, companies like Congoleum phased out its use. Congoleum used asbestos for many years, but does not use it today. Some of the products Congoleum put asbestos in include six-foot sheets of vinyl flooring and vinyl tiles made in the 1950s, asphalt tiles made from the 1940s through the 1970s, vinyl countertops, and sheet flooring made through 1980. Some of the Congoleum brand names that contained asbestos include Dyansty, Ultraflor, Gold Seal, Flor-Ever, and Cushionflor.
Workers Exposed to Asbestos
Employers of Congoleum were put at risk of being exposed to asbestos because they worked in facilities that actually used the mineral and may even have handled it. When working with asbestos, the fibers can easily become airborne where they become part of the dust that people inhale and that settles on surfaces. Also at risk of having been exposed were all the workers that used Congoleum flooring. Carpenters and construction workers who installed the flooring, or demolition workers who removed it, were likely to have inhaled asbestos fibers. This is especially true if the flooring was cut or damaged, exposing the fibers.
Asbestos Litigation against Congoleum
Congoleum was hit hard by asbestos lawsuits from former employees and other workers in the construction industry. The company was found liable in a number of cases of exposure and illness. In some cases the plaintiffs did recognize that Congoleum products were labeled as containing asbestos but claimed that the company did not add a warning that there were serious potential health consequences of working with asbestos-containing products.
One example of a lawsuit filed against Congoleum came from a man who worked as a flooring contractor. He developed a rare type of mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma, which attacks the tissue lining the heart. The workers sued Congoleum and other companies that made flooring with asbestos. He did not survive the resulting trial, but his surviving family was awarded over $3 million for the pain and suffering and for the medical bills and expenses caused by his decades of working with asbestos products.
Bankruptcy, Reorganization, and Asbestos Trust
The number of lawsuits against Congoleum or that involved Congoleum piled up over the years until the company attempted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1993. It was denied the right to reorganize at that time, but by 2003 was allowed to reorganize with bankruptcy protection. As a part of that protection the company had to create the Congoleum Plan Trust. It became active in 2010 and was funded by Congoleum with $270 million and about half of the company’s stock.
The trust was established to help pay for the claims that were still outstanding and to pay for those that would arise in the future. Because illnesses like mesothelioma take many years after asbestos exposure to develop, the company was anticipating years of future claims. If you or your spouse has been diagnosed with an asbestos illness and you believe you can trace your exposure to asbestos to Congoleum products, you can file a claim with the trust fund for compensation. Working with an experienced lawyer is a smart move, as the process can get confusing and a lawyer will give you a better chance of making a successful claim.
Page edited by Dave Foster
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