More than 100 current and former Nassau Coliseum employees have begun the process of filing lawsuits alleging that long-term exposure to asbestos at the county-owned arena made them seriously ill, according to court documents.
The plaintiffs, including a widow of a heating and air conditioning technician who filed a wrongful death action, will seek $500 million to $1 billion from 21 defendants including Nassau County, the New York Islanders and facility manager SMG, said attorney Joseph Dell, who is handling the cases.
Dell said 140 people have filed notices of claim -- a required first step before filing suit against the government -- alleging the defendants failed to protect them from exposure to asbestos, a carcinogen, in locations throughout the arena. By midsummer all of the lawsuits will be filed and the court likely will consolidate the claims into a class action, he said.
County Attorney John Ciampoli said he was "highly skeptical that there is any merit to these claims. There is no substance behind these claims to create liability to the county."
SMG declined to comment on the suit. Islanders' senior vice president Michael Picker did not return calls.
Plaintiffs include electricians, carpenters, plumbers and mechanics who currently or previously worked for SMG, the Islanders or as independent contractors inside the arena.
About 20 percent have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses, Dell said, while the rest fear that they could get sick from asbestosis, which can take decades to develop.
Charles Conforti Sr., a laborer employed by SMG at the Coliseum from 1975-2005, said he was regularly exposed to asbestos while drilling into floor tiles and performing other work. Conforti, of Huntington Station, said he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 and takes an oxygen tank wherever he goes.
"I am existing, but I am not living," said Conforti, whose son Charles Jr. works at the Coliseum as a laborer foreman and is getting treatment for a lung ailment.
Eileen Connolly, widow of air conditioning technician John Connolly, has filed a $20 million wrongful death action. Her husband, who worked for SMG from 1972 to 1998, was awarded lifetime workers' compensation benefits due to long-term asbestos exposure.
He died of lung cancer in November 2010. The lawsuit seeks $10 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages. Nassau, like most municipalities, cannot be held liable for punitive damages.
The suit contends that Nassau knew for 40 years that the Coliseum was built with asbestos, but they and the other defendants failed to tell employees because they "did not want to lose revenue" from events being canceled at the arena.
The wrongful death suit claims arena employees were not informed about the asbestos, even after Connolly's death, nor were they given safety gear or training on how to avoid asbestos exposure.
Asbestos concerns at the Coliseum first surfaced in March 2012 after Robert Wass, 53, an SMG electrical foreman from Smithtown and a plaintiff who has been diagnosed with early-stage asbestosis, collected samples from 10 spots in the building and sent them to labs in Holbrook and Florida for analysis. Seven sites came back positive for asbestos.
A subsequent inspection by J.C. Broderick & Associates Inc. of Hauppauge, a county consultant, found asbestos in areas including stairwells, a tunnel below the exhibition hall and in an ice plant. Broderick found no contamination in public areas of the arena. County officials say asbestos later was removed from the affected areas, although Wass said only a fraction of the asbestos has been removed from the building.
In October 2012, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued 16 "serious" workplace violations against SMG, including failing to clean up asbestos in multiple locations. OSHA fined SMG $88,000. The state Department of Labor fined SMG $13,000 last year as part of a related asbestos investigation. SMG is contesting the fines.Asbestos is a mineral fiber that was used in building construction materials as insulation and a fire retardant. When the materials are damaged or disturbed, microscopic fibers become airborne and can be inhaled, causing health problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.