Georgia-Pacific is one of the biggest pulp, paper, and packaging manufacturers in the world. The company is most well-known for its paper products, but it also makes building and construction products and materials, chemicals, mining products, and aerospace products. The company is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia and its history goes back to Augusta, Georgia in 1927.
Over the years, Georgia-Pacific has done business making a lot of different products for various industries, and that includes making and selling products that contained asbestos. Most of these came from an acquisition the company made in 1965. Georgia-Pacific bought Bestwall Gypsum and got into the business of making asbestos-containing joint compounds. Although the company has not made the product in decades, it is still paying billions in related mesothelioma and asbestos lawsuits.
The history of paper giant Georgia-Pacific dates back to 1927. Founder Owen Robertson Cheatham began the company as the Georgia Hardwood Lumber Company in Augusta. The hardwood lumber wholesale company also opened and operated sawmills. In the 1940s the company supplied more lumber to the war effort than any other company and after the war it expanded westward, opening a facility in Bellingham, Washington. In 1948 the name of the company changed to Georgia-Pacific Plywood and Lumber Company, shortened to Georgia-Pacific Corporation in 1956.
In 1957 Georgia-Pacific entered the paper and pulp manufacturing industry with its first pulp and linerboard mill opening in Toledo, Oregon. In 1963 the company made its first tissues, with the Coronet brand. Over the next several decades Georgia-Pacific would continue to grow, acquiring more businesses along the way, including the crucially important acquisition of Bestwall Gypsum in 1965. In 2005 Georgia-Pacific Corporation was bought by Koch Industries for $21 billion.
Asbestos Use in Products
Georgia-Pacific has paid dearly for the use of asbestos in its products, but considering the huge amount of products the company has made over many years, it was only a small portion of the product line that was impacted by asbestos. The asbestos-containing products were made by acquired company Bestwall Gypsum, but when Georgia-Pacific bought the company, it took on liability for the products.
Bestwall Gypsum was a company that made drywall. It made the first ever gypsum wallboard, which was called Beaver Products’ Bestwall. It was a popular building material and it was used beginning in the late 1920s and through the 1940s and for many years in the post-war building boom. The company also made spackle and joint compounds for construction. Georgia-Pacific bought Bestwall in 1965 and continued manufacturing the asbestos-containing products. This was just about the time when it was beginning to come to light that asbestos was causing health problems in workers.
The Georgia-Pacific and Bestwall products that contained asbestos were limited, but widely used. They included gypsum drywall, wallboard, plaster, and joint compound. Gypsum, like asbestos, is a natural mineral. Gypsum is not harmful, but the Bestwall products included asbestos fibers. These were mixed into the gypsum to add strength, insulation, and fireproofing. The asbestos products that were labeled as Georgia-Pacific branded products were all various types of joint compound.
Asbestos Exposure in Workers
The use of asbestos in these gypsum products provided useful qualities for building materials, but also put many people at risk of serious health problems. Asbestos fibers, when released into the air, can be inhaled or ingested. Once in the body the fibers become lodged in tissues and cause damage that over many years can lead to the development of lung cancer, mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer, and asbestosis, a progressive scarring of lung tissue.
Many workers were exposed to asbestos because of Bestwall and Georgia-Pacific products. Workers who manufactured the materials, worked directly with asbestos, mixing it into the gypsum. Before the dangers were known, these workers were likely unprotected with safety gear and were at serious risk of inhaling the fibers and even of bringing fibers home on their clothing and contaminating family members.
Another group at risk because of these products is construction workers. This is a much bigger group of people because it includes anyone who worked with or around the asbestos products made by Bestwall and Georgia-Pacific. This includes the drywall workers who worked directly with the products, but also all other types of workers on building construction sites. A particular hazard was the fact that these workers sanded the dried joint compound, causing fibers of asbestos to become airborne. Anyone working in the area was put at risk of inhaling the fibers. Also at risk is anyone who has done renovation or remodeling work on an older home that still contains these asbestos materials.
Georgia Pacific Lawsuits
Unlike many other companies that produced asbestos products or acquired a company that produced them, Georgia-Pacific did not have to file for bankruptcy protection in the face of lawsuits. The company was large enough to face the huge number of lawsuits and amounts of settlements and awards. There is no asbestos trust fund, but individuals affected by Bestwall asbestos have filed lawsuits and many of them have won.
An example of one of these cases ended in a jury award of $9.4 million to the victim in a Florida case. A construction worker, named Ron Taylor, filed the lawsuit. He worked as a painting supervisor in the 1970s and worked with Georgia-Pacific and Bestwall joint compound. He described being covered in dust most days from the sanding down of the joint compound. He was ultimately diagnosed with mesothelioma. Taylor sought $29 million, but was awarded $9.4 million by the jury which found that he was partly liable and that Georgia-Pacific was mostly liable for his illness.
Facing thousands of lawsuits and claims, Georgia-Pacific conducted a secret research program in which it hoped to prove that its products did not cause cancer. The company hired experts to conduct the studies and publish the desired evidence. Ultimately 18 scientists were paid over $6 million to do this work. A New York appeals court determined that this practice was likely to result in fraud.
Georgia-Pacific and now Koch Industries will continue to face lawsuits against them over asbestos exposure and resulting illnesses. While the company may have tried to downplay the harm that asbestos joint compound causes with its secret research program, it has yet to be able to use that line of argument successfully in an asbestos case. If you worked for Georgia-Pacific, Bestwall, or any company that used their asbestos products, you can rely on a mesothelioma lawyer to help you file a lawsuit and seek compensation.