Most Americans rarely have experiences with the law outside of a motor vehicle infraction or being victimized by a minor crime. That’s a fortunate result of the legal system being so fine-tuned that it prevents many incidents from occurring. That’s now becoming the case with products made with asbestos-containing materials.
However, from the 1920s through the 1980s, American military personnel, civilian workers and other innocent parties were negligently exposed to lethal amounts of asbestos fibers.
This massive tragedy could have been avoided or greatly reduced. If proper laws and regulations concerning asbestos had been enacted during that seven-decade spree, millions of Americans wouldn’t have been carelessly exposed to this deadly mineral. Now the only recourse for asbestos-exposure victims suffering life-threatening diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis is to use their right to claim compensation through the lawsuit process.
American Civil Law Procedure
The United States of America has two distinct law divisions. One is criminal law where the State is responsible for prosecuting offenders and delivering just punishment. Although federal acts like the Constitution and national precedents such as U.S. Supreme Court rulings apply everywhere, criminal law or penal code procedures are state administered. Criminal courts also hear prosecutions like drug, firearm and vehicle offenses.
Civil law is the other legal division. It can also be processed by the State, but often falls under federal jurisdiction. Civil cases handle complaints outside the criminal arena and usually involve one citizen, called the plaintiff, requesting the court remedy any wrongdoing that may have been caused by another party. The defendant can be an individual, a group of people, a business or an employer.
Civil courts oversee many cases, including:
- Domestic cases involving family situations like child custody, support and divorce.
- Contract cases involving disputes over business agreements and credit arrangements.
- Personal injury claims where the plaintiff alleges wrongdoing on the defendant’s part caused them pain, suffering, illness, medical expenses, loss of income and even loss of life. Asbestos-related lawsuits are personal injury civil court claims.
America’s current civil law process adheres to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). These rules were developed in 1938 and continue to be regularly updated. Most states adopt the FRCP, but some have minor exceptions.
The FRCP also designates three civil court levels:
- Small claims court hears actions under a $5,000 value.
- District court handles cases under $10,000 and all domestic cases.
- Superior court deals with cases exceeding $10,000. The vast majority of asbestos-related litigations are heard in superior courts.
American civil law is divided into two procedures. These are prescriptive rules or guidance and work in conjunction to ensure cases are fair, expedient and understandable.
Civil procedures include:
- Substantive law defines individual rights and duties within statutes.
- Procedural law prescribes methods how litigants apply substantive law.
Both substantive and procedural law combine to govern a lawsuit’s commencement, service process, acts of discovery, disclosure and evidentiary documentation. They provide rules for trial, verdict judgment, compensation and appeal process. Procedures also allow for civil dispute parties to settle the claim anywhere before a trial is decided. Once a verdict is reached, private settlements are not allowed.
The Civil Law Process
American justice principles are clear and quite straightforward. Theoretically, courts attempt to be inclusive and equal to every citizen. In practice, though, civil trials can be complex and overwhelming to the layperson. Asbestos litigation trials are some of the most complicated torts in American legal history. These civil law processes need the care and knowledge only an experienced attorney can provide.
Mesothelioma Justice Network Brief
Law firms focused on asbestos-related lawsuits have access to vast resources. That includes case law precedents on previous asbestos litigation settlements and verdict decisions. Asbestos attorneys are intricately familiar with each step of the civil litigation process and work with clients preparing them for a possibly long and tiring road.
- Research: Lawyers work with claimants to research the case history. Research entails case evaluation establishing the plaintiff-suffered injury through wrongdoing by the defendant. Work and medical records support the claim. So do common and expert witnesses. It’s vital to establish the source of asbestos and prove the defendant was willfully or negligently responsible for exposing the complainant.
- Filing: This stage triggers a civil action. Lawyers prepare a written complaint and file it in the court having case jurisdiction. A copy is served on the defendant after which they have a limited period to make a written response. Intermediate motions usually attempt to have the matter dropped, but an experienced lawyer who properly prepares the complaint is ready.
- Discovery: Plaintiffs and defendants are allowed to discover what evidence each party has and test it before trial. This is an important step and usually results in a negotiated settlement. Witnesses are deposed and cross-examined. Documents like medical evidence and employment verification are entered. This transparent legal approach minimizes trial time and possible errors.
- Trial: Around 5% of asbestos civil lawsuits go through a formal trial. This procedure has no guarantees. It’s risky for both parties, regardless if they choose a jury to hear the case or elect for a lone judge sitting on a bench trial. Once a verdict is reached, it’s binding. A defendant may be found not liable and the case is dismissed leaving the plaintiff without compensation. Or, the verdict may favor the plaintiff and force the defendant to pay the prescribed compensation as well as accept the liability finding.
- Appeal: Whoever loses a civil trial is entitled to apply to a higher court for a case review or appeal. Appellate courts don’t automatically accept appeals. The applicant must demonstrate there was a trial error in procedure rather than in interpreting facts.
Retaining an Experienced Asbestos-Case Litigator
All civil case trials are essentially gambles. Trials normally happen when the plaintiff and defendant are steadfastly apart and not able to reach a settled agreement. Reasons for this vary. Sometimes, each side calculates they have a winning case and are willing to test it in a trial. It might be a case where the plaintiff is adamant the defendant be held liable and the principle is more important than compensation. And occasionally, taking a case to trial is extending a legal bluff where a greater amount can be negotiated when forced into a trial.
Competent and reputable law firms do not charge plaintiffs any retainer or up-front fees. They work on a set percentage of eventual compensation—a standard practice in most civil processes including asbestos case litigation. This ensures the attorneys act in their clients’ best interest and ultimately receive the best possible compensation settlement.