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Volkswagen found liable in death of Spokane technician

$5.75-million decision holds the automaker accountable under product liability law for exposure to asbestos while replacing brakes and clutches.

Spokane, Wash.—A King County Jury has found Volkswagen AG of Germany and its American subsidiary Volkswagen Group of America liable for exposing Thomas Sorrentino to carcinogenic asbestos through his work as an auto technician at United Volkswagen in Spokane, Wash. The judgement awards the now-deceased plaintiff and his son, Johnathan Sorrentino, $5.75 million in damages. The jury awarded $5 million to the estate of Sorrentino, with $750k going to his son.

From 1972 to 1975, Sorrentino worked as a technician at the Spokane-based dealership replacing brakes and clutches on Volkswagen vehicles that exposed him to asbestos-containing friction material that many decades later led to his mesothelioma diagnosis. Sorrentino was diagnosed with mesothelioma in November of 2020, and passed from his illness in February of 2021, just a few days after he gave his deposition for the case.

As part of the process of replacing brakes, Sorrentino used an Ammco grinding machine to arc the brakes to fit the drum. The grinding process caused asbestos dust to be released into the air. He also used an air compressor to blow the dust off the brake drum. Using the air compressor would also throw a plume of brake dust into the air, exposing him to harmful asbestos. At the time of Sorrentino’s exposure, Volkswagen AG was testing for asbestos at its factories in Germany, providing protection to its own employees, but not U.S. technicians such as Sorrentino.

Volkswagen conceded that it placed no warnings regarding asbestos on its replacement brakes, on brake boxes or in any circulars or bulletins from 1972-1975. Because of Volkswagen’s failure to warn, Sorrentino had no chance to protect himself from asbestos dust when he performed automotive work at United.

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