SPOKANE — When Thomas “Tony” Sorrentino became winded trying to move a couch with his son Jon, the younger Sorrentino urged him to go see a doctor.
“It actually scared him enough to where he ended up leaving my house and not saying goodbye,” Jon Sorrentino said in a phone interview.
The diagnosis was mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer that is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma cases are common among miners, including those who worked the vermiculite mines in Libby, Montana, and construction workers working with asbestos as an insulation material. But Tony Sorrentino had spent most of his adult life as a drug and alcohol counselor for young people.
The Sorrentinos contacted the law firm Bergman Draper Oslund Udo in Seattle, which has expertise in investigating and prosecuting asbestos cases. Their investigation quickly connected Tony Sorrentino’s illness with a stint with a Volkswagen dealership on East Sprague Avenue when he was in his 20s, and the Sorrentinos filed suit against the German automaker.
Last Monday, a King County jury awarded Sorrentino’s estate $5.75 million in damages.
Chandler Udo, the Sorrentinos’ attorney, said a dangerous exposure to asbestos may not be apparent to many of those who, decades later, are diagnosed with cancer.
“It has a latency period that can be anywhere from 10 years all the way to 70 years or more,” Udo said. “So, in Tony’s case, it’s about 45 years, and that’s right in the middle of what is typical for asbestos-caused mesothelioma.”
Tony Sorrentino worked on cars at United Volkswagen Inc. from 1971 to 1974, using a tool called an arc grinder to shape drum brakes before installing them, according to a complaint filed in King County in January 2021. Grinding the brakes produced dust containing asbestos that Sorrentino inhaled during the roughly 700 brake jobs he performed on Volkswagen vehicles, according to the lawsuit.
The attorney representing Volkswagen did not respond to a request for comment on the jury verdict in time for publication. Volkswagen said in an email response Thursday night that it was “processing” a request for comment on the lawsuit’s outcome.
In court filings, Volkswagen argued that it was following all health and safety standards in place at the time Sorrentino was employed by the dealership. The Environmental Protection Agency began regulating the use of asbestos about the same time that Sorrentino was working at the dealership, but not specifically related to car parts. A Washington state law banning the use of brake pads and shoes containing asbestos was not passed by the Legislature until 2010.
The automaker also tried to appeal a ruling by a King County judge that an American court had authority over the international company in the dispute.
Tony Sorrentino had to sit for a deposition quickly after the filing of the lawsuit because of his deteriorating health. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in November 2020. On Feb. 18, 2021, he died at age 70.
“Jon and I were just so impressed with him because he was very sharp, he was focused and he did a fantastic job getting through the deposition,” Udo said, noting that Tony Sorrentino needed supplemental oxygen to help him breathe while delivering testimony. “He barely made it.”
Jon Sorrentino said it was difficult to sit in the courtroom and hear attorneys for Volkswagen argue they weren’t at fault for his dad’s sudden health decline and death.
“You’re going up against a real huge company,” Sorrentino said. “There were some personalities involved that were pretty abrasive, and quite frustrating to deal with as far as the opposing side. Some of that was geared toward my father, which was really upsetting to me.”
The jury returned a verdict finding that Volkswagen was liable for manufacturing products that were unsafe and a “substantial factor” in causing the mesothelioma, but did not find that the automaker had been negligent, according to jury verdict forms.
Udo said the jury verdict was a rare and significant victory against Volkswagen, though other auto manufacturers have been successfully sued for similar damages. The Sorrentinos’ legal actions against other defendants in the case, including the manufacturer of the tool he used on brake jobs, settled before trial.
“I know that this is certainly one of the best outcomes against Volkswagen, across the United States,” Udo said.
Jon Sorrentino said he was still trying to decide what to do with the money, though he’ll likely set some aside for his daughter.
“I’m probably the type of person that will live like I don’t have it for the most part,” he said, “and figure out how to, hopefully, make it into something bigger.”
Sorrentino said that while his dad moved away from working on cars, he returned to the area 12 years ago to take care of his mother and assisted an uncle with building a cabin on Newman Lake. Tony Sorrentino also helped his son remodel a restaurant business a few years back.
“He would do anything for anybody and not ask for much in return,” Jon Sorrentino said. “He was a super, super amazing guy.”