College to pay $2.9M after staff member blows whistle on asbestos problems

Employees at Sonoma State University involved in a asbesto trial will get a share of $2.9 million after a California jury returned a verdict in their favor during a high-profile whistleblower case.

asbestos chrysotile fibers

The Press Democrat reports that 231 staff and faculty members who worked at Stevenson Hall at the school were involved in an asbestos lawsuit that started when one of the employees raised concerns about asbestos. Instead of taking concerns seriously, Craig Dawson, and the California State University Board of Trustees forced the employee, Thomas Sargent, who had worked at the school for 24 years, out of his job. They accused him of creating a “hostile work environment.”

In March, a jury awarded $387,000 to Sargent, and it started a suit that led to other employees’ getting compensated. On Thursday, California judge Nancy Shafer awarded an additional $725,000 to be disbursed to employees who worked inside Stevenson Hall from Stevenson Hall from May 2013 to March 2015.

“We are happy that between the judge and the jury, these violations have been exposed,” said Dustin Collier, lawyer for Sargent, told Press Democrat. “The university can no longer deny their existence. We are hopeful this will be a catalyst for change.”

Judge Nancy Shafer also ordered that administrators at the school reinstate Sargent’s position, along with two years’ worth of back pay.

The school spent over $3 million in legal defense fees in the lawsuit, which, according to Collier, was a “colossal waste of taxpayer money to avoid cleaning asbestos.”

Spokesperson for the California State University system, Toni Molle, wrote in an email the penalties were much larger than the violations, and that this particular area of law is “unsettled,”

“This is an area of the law that is unsettled and there are many unresolved issues that will need to be addressed by the Court of Appeal and possibly, the California Supreme Court. We are optimistic that the appeal will be successful.”

Yet, if it wasn’t for Sargent’s complaints, the school may have never been held responsible for the abundance of asbestos between its walls. The university was built during a time when asbestos was used heavily due to its ease of use, affordability, and resistance to heat and fire.

Asbestos is much less dangerous when it isn’t disturbed, but Sargent pointed out that the school had crumbling flooring, broken ceiling tile, and other areas of concerns that was making the campus dangerous. He said that carcinogenic asbestos fibers were being released in rooms from the crumbling ceiling tile, yet his superiors never took the proper steps to take care of the issue when he raised concerns.

It’s still unclear how the university plans to handle the asbestos issue, but Gina Voight, president of the CSU employees union at Sonoma State, told Press Democrat that an ideal situation would be that school administrators start listening to their employees and others who have concerns, instead of “shutting them out.”

“We would like to see a better response from the university instead of denial and shutting us out,” Voight said. “They need to open doors and welcome change in these old buildings.”

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