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Sonoma State asbestos whistle-blower wins verdict in civil case

A Sonoma County jury has returned a verdict supporting the claims of a former Sonoma State University staffer who says he was subjected to harassment and retaliation for sounding alarms about issues that included handling of asbestos-containing materials in one of several older buildings on campus.

After deliberating over four days, the civil jury determined that Thomas Sargent’s refusal to stay quiet about valid workplace safety concerns resulted in such intolerably hostile work conditions that he was effectively forced from his job as campus environmental health and safety specialist.

Sargent, a certified asbestos consultant, had worked at the university for 24 years when he resigned under duress two years ago, having been reprimanded several times and suspended during the latter part of his tenure in what a majority of jurors agreed was retribution for legally protected whistle-blowing activity.

The jury awarded him $387,895 in lost compensation and damages, including mental suffering and emotional distress, and found both Sargent’s immediate superior, Craig Dawson, and the California State University Board of Trustees liable in the case. Dawson still works as director of environmental health and safety at SSU. He declined to comment on the verdict.

But the complex case has much broader repercussions under a section of California Labor Code that allows aggrieved employees to recover civil damages on behalf of themselves, their co-workers and state occupational safety enforcement agencies.

A total of 231 staff and faculty assigned to Stevenson Hall, the building at the center of the case, stand to recover still-undetermined damages as a result of Sargent’s case, at the discretion of Superior Court Judge Nancy Case Shaffer.

Sargent’s attorney, Dustin Collier, said it appears the verdict would allow Shaffer to award up to $2.9 million in additional damages.

Though its findings were mixed, the jury determined that SSU violated occupational health and safety standards intended to prevent exposure to carcinogenic asbestos fibers that might be released from disturbed, worn or crumbling floor and ceiling tiles, or other construction materials once commonly composed of asbestos.

The jury - nine of its 12 members, at least, the threshold required in most civil cases - determined that Sargent’s legal team provided sufficient evidence to justify seven of 16 Occupational Safety and Health Administration claims in the suit.

Violations included lapses in proper care of asbestos-?containing floor tiles and of office surfaces that accumulated contaminated dust; requirements for inspection and appropriate cleaning of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, which Sargent’s legal teams claims was spreading toxic air; and general obligations to do everything “reasonably necessary to protect the life, safety, and health of employees.”

But the jury refused to validate claims the university had failed to provide a “safe and healthful” place of employment at Stevenson Hall.

It also declined to find that Dawson acted “with malice, oppression, or fraud,” thus denying the plaintiff the opportunity to collect punitive damages even as it determined neither Dawson nor SSU could justify its adverse employment actions against Sargent.

Sargent said he was pleased with the outcome because of the pressure it will put on SSU to enforce the campus health and safety program.

“I’m really happy for today,” Sargent said. “It affects hundreds of people.”

He also said he remains a supportive university alumnus and appreciates improvements made under the new campus president, Judy Sakaki, who assumed the post last July, succeeding Ruben Armiñana.

Judge Shaffer set a schedule for legal briefings leading up to a May 26 hearing to determine damages on the OSHA claims.

CSU Executive Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Framroze Virjee issued a statement in response to requests to the SSU administration for comment, saying the university disagreed with the jury’s finding regarding retaliation and would review its legal options, including appeal.

The jury of five women and seven men heard two months of testimony in the case and were required to complete a verdict form with more than 100 findings.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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