A federal court judge has ordered three former executives of the defunct nonprofit Firm Build to pay a total of $1.8 million to dozens of victims who were exposed to asbestos while working for the group, the office of U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner announced Monday.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill on Monday ordered Patrick Bowman, Rudy Buendia III and Joseph Cuellar to pay the funds, which will go exclusively toward the cost of medically monitoring the health of the 65 people who were exposed to the cancer-causing substance at the Castle Commerce Center’s Automotive Training Center in Atwater.
The Merced County Office of Education had contracted with Firm Build to provide job training to high school students.
Prosecutors say Bowman, Buendia and Cuellar cut corners on a renovation project by knowingly using high school students to remove asbestos from the 2245 Jetstream Drive building from September 2005 to March 2006 under the guise of involving them in work experience and job training programs.
The Merced County District Attorney’s Office launched the asbestos investigation in November 2009, and the state and federal charges followed.
The men eventually pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of violating the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants law. They also pleaded no contest to state felony charges of treating, handling or disposing of asbestos in a manner that caused an unreasonable risk of serious injury to the students, with reckless disregard for their safety.
While many of the victims exposed to the asbestos were teenagers, prosecutors said some adults who worked at the site were also exposed.
Walter Wall, the Merced County deputy district attorney who handled the state case with Deputy Attorney General Brett Morris, said O’Neill’s order was one of the largest judgments for an asbestos case in the state. Wall said the funds from the judgment are geared toward medically monitoring all of the victims for the rest of their lives.
“The health of these kids was sacrificed and compromised for financial gain by these defendants,” Wall said. “This award recognizes the gravity of the harm to these individuals with respect to their health. It’s a just reward because each one of those kids are going to have to (receive) medical monitoring and will worry about their health for the rest of their lives.”
While the funds from O’Neill’s order only go toward medical monitoring costs, several of the former students have filed a civil case in Merced County Superior Court that seeks undisclosed damages from Buendia, Bowman and Cuellar.
That case, which is pending, seeks damages due to possible injuries and emotional suffering, and also names the Merced County Office of Education as a defendant.
The Sun-Star placed calls to some of the former students who were exposed to asbestos at the Castle site. Those who were reached Monday declined comment, due to the ongoing civil case.
During a federal court hearing in 2013, many of the students, who are now in their mid-20s, testified their street clothes were covered in dust while removing the asbestos materials from the building.
Some said the debris from breaking up the material caused a fog-like cloud inside the building, and others said the dust entered their noses and mouths. Others have complained of suffering from frequent nose bleeds, chest pains and other problems.
When the work at Castle took place, Bowman was Firm Build’s president, Cuellar was its administrative manager and Buendia was its construction project site manager.
The San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assisted with the investigation, according to Wagner’s office.
Bowman, Buendia and Cuellar were all sentenced to between 24 months and 27 months in federal prison. Bowman and Buendia are currently serving their sentences at Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc, a low-security prison.
Cuellar, who remains free, is attempting to withdraw his no contest plea in Merced County Superior Court. His next court hearing is scheduled for April 8.