Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Asbestos Lawsuits in the US

By Masham Sheraz

Asbestos litigation is known to be the longest-running, most expensive mass tort in U.S. history, proof of which is the fact that it involves more than 8,000 defendants and 700,000 claimants. Legal claims for injuries from asbestos involve more plaintiffs, more defendants and higher costs than any other type of personal injury litigation. Some analysts have estimated that the total costs of asbestos litigation in the USA alone will eventually reach $200 to $275 billion in the years to come.

The main driving forces at the back of asbestos litigation are the diseases caused by exposure to asbestos; mesothelioma, asbestosis and cancer are just a few of these. There are no known cures for the cancers, and the seriousness of them has led plaintiffs to push for more information from current and former employers. Current trends indicate that the rate at which people are diagnosed with the disease will likely increase through the next decade.

Since asbestos-related disease has been identified by the medical profession in the late 1920s, workers' compensation cases were filed and resolved in secrecy, with a flood of litigation starting in the United States in the 1970s, and culminating in the 1980s and 1990s. Since the first lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers were brought in the late 1920's, many lawsuits have been filed. The case of Borel v. Fireboard Paper Products Corporation became a landmark lawsuit, setting the stage for decades of asbestos litigation. As a result of the litigation, manufacturers sold off subsidiaries, diversified, produced asbestos substitutes, and started asbestos removal businesses. Furthermore, many companies that were defendants in asbestos related tort cases were forced into bankruptcy or declared it.

Ordinarily, only a small fraction of all those who are injured seek compensation from the courts Typically, the high costs of tort litigation screen out of the system the majority of claims for minor injuries and modest losses. In asbestos litigation, however, mass litigation strategies have effectively opened the courts to everyone who can prove exposure to asbestos and demonstrate a legally cognizable injury.

It has been observed that the two methods that the U.S. legal system has developed to collectively resolve mass torts - bankruptcies of defendant firms and class action settlements -- have not worked for asbestos litigation. This is due to the fact that when one asbestos defendant gets bankrupt, plaintiffs' lawyers find other non-bankrupt defendants to sue, thus shifting the litigation pressure to new sectors of the economy. Also, the large numbers of asbestos plaintiffs, defendants and insurers make it nearly impossible to reach a voluntary agreement on a class action settlement. Thus, it is believed that the Congress will have to pass firm legislation in order to settle this issue for once and for all. Not only will it provide a mechanism to compensate the victims of asbestos-caused diseases but will also permanently curb the use of harmful substances such as asbestos.

(The writer is an aspiring lawyer)

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