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Asbestos Mesothelioma Victim Was a Sitting Judge in Texas

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Houston, TXAn asbestos mesothelioma lawsuit that hits close to home for those in the legal profession appeared, earlier this month to be in limbo and caught between a workers’ compensation claim, and whether or not the subject of the asbestos lawsuit was indeed, an employee and thus qualified for worker’s compensation.

The asbestos cancer lawsuit is being brought by the widow of a judge in Texas whom, according to Law360 (11/09/17) died in November, 2004 following a diagnosis of asbestos mesothelioma. The plaintiff in the asbestos lawsuit claims her late husband, former Jefferson County District Court Judge James Farris, was felled from mesothelioma triggered from spending his career inside an older courthouse that contained asbestos.

According to court documents, no one appears to be disputing whether, or not the building in which Farris held court for so many years actually contained asbestos. The issue instead, appears to be whether the asbestos cancer lawsuit brought by Farris’ estate should be tossed out in favor of a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.

Earlier this year, in June a US District Court judge in Harris County rejected an argument made by the defendant, Jefferson County, that Ellarene Farris – acting on behalf of her late husband and his estate – had failed to exhaust administrative remedies available under the workers’ compensation statute before bringing her asbestos claims before the Court.

Jefferson County appealed to the First Court of Appeals, arguing that Farris’ lawsuit is barred by both the Workers’ Compensation Act and the Texas Tort Claims Act, the latter Act under which Ellarene Farris brought her premises defect claim. She seeks damages on behalf of her late husband’s estate from Jefferson County, the owner of the courthouse in which Farris worked for so many years.

Jefferson County argued that Judge Farris, were he deemed to be a County employee, was statutorily covered under Workers’ Compensation and thus a claim for workers’ compensation benefits should have been made in 2006 – the year the asbestos lawsuit was filed – before the matter was brought before the courts.

What muddies the waters is the fact Judge Farris was an elected official. The pivotal issue therefore, became an interpretation as to whether, or not Judge Farris was deemed an employee by Jefferson County for purposes of workers’ compensation.

Arguing against the defendant’s petition to have the asbestos compensation case dismissed, asbestos attorneys representing Ellarene Farris and her late husband’s estate argued that as an elected official Judge Farris was not, technically an employee of Jefferson County even if he worked in premises (the Courthouse) owned and managed by the County. Farris et al also argued that while the County might have elected to provide workers’ compensation coverage to Judge Farris, there was no compelling evidence available that demonstrated the County actually followed through on any such decision to extend benefits to the late Judge.

A resolution enacted by Jefferson County in 1977 extended workers’ compensation to elected officials. However, Farris et al argued that such capability to extend evidence was insufficient on its own to support an argument for workers’ compensation benefits. Instead, the defendant should be made to provide proof that such benefits were, indeed provided to Judge Farris. Farris et al claimed there was no real evidence that such coverage was actually provided and in force, thus the Farris asbestos mesothelioma lawsuit should stand.

The asbestos cancer lawsuit is Jefferson County, Texas v. Ellarene Farris et al., Case No. 01-17-00493-cv, in the First Court of Appeals of the State of Texas.


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