The deadly health effects of asbestos exposure have been known and documented since Roman times, when asbestosis was known as the “disease of slaves” who worked with the substance.
By the early 1900s, it was becoming apparent to the medical community in Europe that there was a connection between asbestos and the high incidence of respiratory disease among those who worked around it.
In the United States, the connection between asbestos and respiratory disease had been scientifically proven in studies commissioned by insurance carriers and the asbestos industries during the 1930s. Lawyers have argued that the asbestos industry weighed the cost, and decided that it would be less expensive to simply conceal the evidence, allow workers to die and pay whatever legal costs might be incurred as a result. Meanwhile, the federal government, reacting to the S.S. Morro Castle tragedy (a shipboard fire) in 1934 became the largest buyer of asbestos products.
In 1977, the corporate conspiracy of silence was exposed, and the industry that reaped large profits while disdaining human life has been paying a staggering financial price ever since.
Incredibly, asbestos is still legal in the United States. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency passed a ban on asbestos that was overturned by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals under corporate pressure. This however may soon change; U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) has reintroduced a bill in Congress called the “Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007” (S. 742). Sokolove Law is leading the way with its very own grassroots initiative “Ban Asbesetos Now”.
Rights and Responsibilities Under the Law
Under the laws of every state and the District of Columbia, those who have been injured by corporate malfeasance and neglect, such as in the case of those diagnosed with mesothelioma, may have a right to sue for compensation. There are also environmental laws governing the use, handling and disposal of asbestos products, both at the federal and state level. State standards may be stricter than federal ones; however these can vary from one state to the next.
Herein lies one of the challenges of pursuing legal action. Aside from the long latency period (malignant mesothelioma symptoms, especially in it’s most common form, pleural mesothelioma, may not appear until fifty years after asbestos exposure), a typical mesothelioma lawsuit may involve numerous defendants, which may be located in multiple states. Because of the long latency period, it requires a great deal of research to determine who is ultimately responsible and under which jurisdiction such a case may fall. This is one reason that there are law firms in asbestos litigation that are national ones with offices in multiple states.
There is also the issue of the law itself. Over the past quarter century, there has been an increasing legislation and policy that favors corporations over the needs of people. Many states have passed laws intending to restrict the rights of plaintiffs to sue corporate defendants. U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) attempted to introduce a bill in 2005 that would have eliminated a plaintiff’s right to sue altogether. Instead, those suffering from asbestos-related diseases would have had to recover their damages from a federal fund. This bill died in committee, was re-introduced, then tabled; no action have been taken on it since June of 2006. The point here is that laws regarding asbestos and mesothelioma are constantly changing, and not always in favor of victims.
Originally, asbestos litigation was often heard in federal court. However, as the amount of litigation has increased and public awareness has grown, these cases have been shifted to the state level. However, corporate defendants invariably appeal any judgment in favor of the plaintiff, meaning that the case moves up to an appellate court. Because the cost of settling such litigation has been so high, many asbestos corporations have entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Many more claims are presented to bankruptcy trust funds than in court.
Asbestos cases brought in state courts tend to move faster than those brought before the federal court. For that reason, mesothelioma lawyers will almost always seek to have an asbestos suit heard in a state court, if they can.. If the Federal courts begin to conduct trials at a faster pace, this trend may change.
Asbestos litigation has generally been favorable to the plaintiff, although no one can predict the outcome of any specific case; most of those favorable awards are reduced on appeal, particularly when punitive or non-specific awards (i.e., pain and suffering, loss of consortium, etc.) are involved. Awards that can be quantified and documented (medical expenses, loss of income, etc.) are more frequently upheld.
In addition, those who have a diagnosis of mesothelioma with documentation by medical professionals have a much better chance of getting a judgment in their favor. The main reason is that mesothelioma has only one proven cause, whereas other forms of asbestos cancer, such as lung cancer, may be due to a number of causes. Asbestosis is another specific disease; however, the burden will be on the plaintiff to prove that the disease is actually asbestosis. Here again, a medically documented diagnosis will go far in getting a verdict in favor of the plaintiff.
As laws regarding litigation differs from state to state, so do the environmental regulations regarding its handling and disposal. In many states, any company planning to remove and dispose of asbestos must file reports and abide by several requirements; this may include private homeowners as well. In other states, such reporting requirements for private homeowners may be optional (although recommended); other states may have no such requirements.
A state’s law may have very specific requirements for the handling of asbestos; any deviance from these requirements may necessitate the filing of a variance form, in which the contractor must explain why standard procedures will not be used, and how the job will be handled.
If you are looking for the law in your state, asbestos regulations and policies may be issued either through the department of environmental quality (DEQ), department of health, or some other agency.
For an additional list of mesothelioma resources in your region, view our list of mesothelioma state legal resources.