Sonoma State University has been ordered to pay $2.9 million in fines after a trial over the mishandling of asbestos at one of its office buildings. The penalties were for violations of occupational health and safety laws related to asbestos.
Some of the money is being used to compensate the 231 teachers, administrative assistants, and other university employees who worked at Stevenson Hall during the period of time in which the violations occurred (May 2013 to March 2015). Judge Nancy Shaffer allotted the $3,100 per individual last week.
Certified asbestos consultant and twenty-four-year university employee Thomas Sargent was awarded $387,000 in March for mental suffering, emotional distress, and lost compensation.
Sargent was forced from his job after vocalizing his asbestos concerns with Stevenson Hall. He was worried the worn and crumbling floor and ceiling tiles were releasing asbestos fibers into the air.
After that, Craig Dawson, his boss, made Sargent’s job a hostile work environment, leading Sargent to quit. Dawson and the California State University Board of Trustees were found liable for harassment and violations of California Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.
California asbestos laws heavily regulate the use of asbestos through everything from air quality programs to asbestos removal, as well as litigation related to asbestos injury through exposure.
In addition to the money awarded, Sargent will get his job back as campus environmental health and safety specialist.
“We are happy that between the judge and the jury, these violations have been exposed. The university can no longer deny their existence. We are hopeful this will be a catalyst for change,” said Sargent’s lawyer.
President of the CSU Employees Union at Sonoma State Gina Voight hopes the penalties encourage schools to reevaluate how they deal with asbestos.
“We would like to see a better response from the university instead of denial and shutting us out,” said Voight. “They need to open doors and welcome change in these old buildings.”
Sonoma State University isn’t the only higher education institute with asbestos problems. Oregon Health and Science University was recently fined $37,500 for asbestos violations during renovations at one of the school’s research centers.
“It was a colossal waste of taxpayer money to avoid cleaning asbestos,” said co-counsel of Sargent’s lawyer. The Sonoma State University spent $3.5 million in legal fees taking the case to trial.