There were so many asbestos-related lawsuits filed in United States federal and state courts, that the judicial system was unable to handle them individually.
Many plaintiffs banded together and had their claims heard jointly. This is a common procedure in many types of civil litigation, it’s called class action lawsuits. For a while, class action suits were seen as the most efficient way of dealing with hundreds of thousands of individual asbestos exposure claims. The theory was that since most plaintiffs had similar complaints against similar defendants, the outcome should be equally similar.
This legal maneuver didn’t work well for mesothelioma class action lawsuits. Most mesothelioma claims differed significantly. The courts found that properly litigating mesothelioma compensation personal injury claims depended on the uniqueness of the individual claimant’s circumstances. Mesothelioma awards needed to be based on how badly the claimant was affected by asbestos exposure, where the exposure occurred, what products were involved and to what degree the defendant was negligent.
The one-size-fits-all approach to class action lawsuits wasn’t suitable for mesothelioma cases. Too much money was involved to give blanket awards. Furthermore, the case facts differed from other asbestos litigations as mesothelioma was the worst medical outcome for someone exposed to asbestos. Mesothelioma consequences were far more serious than lesser diseases or the vast amount of lawsuits filed where a claimant was exposed to asbestos but had not yet developed impairment.
Mesothelioma class action lawsuits were popular during the late twentieth century. Today, there are no mesothelioma class actions in U.S. Federal courts, only occasionally are they heard at the state level. In 1997, the United States Supreme Court ruled that class action suits were inappropriate for mesothelioma cases. Now, most mesothelioma lawsuits are litigated as individual claims and settled according to their merit.
What Class Action Lawsuits Are
Class action lawsuits happen when a number of plaintiffs cooperate in forming one group of litigants having similar complaints against a similar defendant or defendant. One plaintiff is named to represent the entire group. Collectively, they petition the court to find liability against the defendant(s) and award compensation and damage payment, which is equally split among the litigants. The named plaintiff usually receives more compensation for initiating the action and leading the process.
Class action lawsuits are designed for large groups who have nearly identical claims, the court will recognize the legitimacy for a group of 40 or more. If shown to be an efficient process for the justice system, a court will certify the class action to approve it. To do so, courts follow Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP).
Class action lawsuits need to meet these requirements:
- There are so many claimants that hearing individual cases is impractical for court administration.
- Law and fact questions are common throughout the class.
- Defendant claims and responses are typical of every plaintiff claim.
- Representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the class interest.
- Prosecuting separate actions would be inconsistent with the groups’ general interest.
- The overall group interest predominates over individual interests.
- The class action approach is superior to other available fair and efficient adjudication methods.
- The likely difficulties of managing a class action suit are less than handling individual cases.
- A class action lawsuit is in the best interests of the administration of justice.
Should a court rule a class action lawsuit is in the overall best interest of the plaintiff group, the court gives a certification order and the group is seen as one collective plaintiff. This lead, named or representative plaintiff’s attorney or legal team, acts on behalf of the entire group throughout the proceedings. The process follows standard civil law procedure including discovery, depositions, motion filing, settlement offers, trial, verdict, and appeals.
Only the lead plaintiff is allowed to speak for the class. Individuals do not testify and are not heard. The plaintiff’s case is seen as representing all of the suit. Every class action member receives equal settlement except for administration fees for the prime plaintiff.
Unfairness of Mesothelioma Class Action Lawsuits
At the heart of FRCP Rule 23 is that the class action representative must represent the interests of all the group members. These interests must be typical for everyone and not at conflict with any individual. The courts eventually found that class actions were particularly unfair to mesothelioma claimants, they saw that rarely did two plaintiffs have the same circumstances or outcome interest.
Mesothelioma differs from other asbestos-caused diseases because of the time factor. Mesothelioma is an aggressive disease having a long latency period from the time the claimant has asbestos exposure until symptoms are present. By the time most mesothelioma cases are diagnosed, there is little time left for a claimant to wait while a class action lawsuit drags out.
Two prominent court cases limited class actions suits in mesothelioma litigation. These are specifically related to mesothelioma class actions and don’t apply to other types of asbestos litigation. In Georgine vs Alchem Inc., the U.S. 3rd District Appeals Court ruled that mesothelioma cases did not fit the Rule 23 requirements for a global settlement because the individual claimant facts were too unique. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court put the Rule 23 issue to rest when they confirmed in Amchem Products Inc. vs Windsor that mesothelioma cases didn’t conform to the class action criteria. They ruled that mesothelioma settlement amounts were too large and the claimants had too many varied interests to be tried in mass.
Litigating Mesothelioma Lawsuits
Clearly, the U.S. superior courts see mesothelioma lawsuits as serious and unique situations. For nearly two decades, mesothelioma claims have not been pursued at the federal level. However, that’s not necessarily so in some state courts.
While class action suits are few and far between, some states take a creative approach to hearing the volume of asbestos-related claims on their overloaded dockets. The process is called consolidation, where the court masses litigations into one process rather than having plaintiffs appeal to be heard as a class. However, many states refuse to take this road in mesothelioma claims because they understand how complex and unique this legal process is.
Individual lawsuits give a mesothelioma claimant a much fairer approach to being compensated for this terrible disease. Every mesothelioma patient has their own story and case facts, this needs to come out in court. It also needs to be heard in a timely manner, which doesn’t fit how class actions operate. The compensation amounts are higher in mesothelioma claims and being forced to settle for lower class action payments is truly unfair.
Mesothelioma lawsuits are complex, but they don’t have to be lengthy or difficult for the individual plaintiff. Retaining an experienced attorney who specializes in mesothelioma lawsuits is critical to getting proper compensation in a reasonable time.