Asbestos Wrongful Death Lawsuits

Summary

During 1999–2015, there were a total of 45,221 deaths with malignant mesothelioma mentioned on the death certificate as the underlying or contributing cause of death were reported in the United States

Though death certificates have help record death tolls, there is still no way to fully account for how many Americans have died as the result of asbestos exposure. It’s not possible to accurately estimate the number of asbestos-related deaths occurring in the hundred-year period when asbestos was prominently used in all types of American workplaces, public buildings and private homes. And it’s equally difficult to predict how many more will die from diseases caused by exposure to products with asbestos-containing materials.

More than 27 million Americans were exposed to lethal asbestos fibers since the “miracle material” became popular in the late 1800s.

Industries prized asbestos for its insulation and fireproofing value. Asbestos made products strong, durable and lightweight. Further, asbestos was cheap, and early manufacturers initially thought it was safe to handle. They were wrong about asbestos safety, and many manufacturers and suppliers knew it. However, negligent companies put profits before people and hid information proving how deadly long-term asbestos exposure would be.

Irresponsible and careless actions by unscrupulous asbestos manufacturers, distributors and employers directly caused countless deaths of American workers. Secondary asbestos exposure also resulted in deaths of their family members and coworkers cross-contaminated by lethal asbestos materials. Peak asbestos use stopped in the 1980s. That was primarily due to public information and the beginning of mass litigation. Many asbestos-related legal actions were for wrongful death lawsuits.

What Are Asbestos Wrongful Death Lawsuits?

Wrongful deaths refer to cases where someone’s death is due to careless, negligent or grossly irresponsible actions by other parties. Wrongful deaths can result from criminal actions such as murder or manslaughter but, usually, they have a lesser standard of culpability or lack of immediate intention. Criminal prosecutions require the high standard of proof beyond all reasonable doubt, whereas civil lawsuits require a finding based on the preponderance of evidence or balance of probabilities.

MJN Brief

Asbestos manufacturers or employers using products with asbestos-containing materials (ACM) often knowingly put unsuspecting workers at risk of asbestos exposure. Over time, innocent people developed asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural disorders. Gradually their health failed and they passed away. Many businesses failed to warn workers about asbestos hazards or provide them with protective equipment, despite the fact they knew how deadly their products were. Their actions constitute wrongful death liability.

Wrongful death lawsuits are common actions in asbestos exposure cases. Often, existing civil actions against a negligent party or parties are underway while the litigant is alive. Plaintiffs suffering life-threatening diseases caused by asbestos exposure already filed complaints alleging negligent wrongdoing by an asbestos company or employer. However, events changed and the disease took their life before the ongoing case was resolved. These actions can revert to wrongful death lawsuits and continue claiming compensation on behalf of dependents despite the original plaintiff being dead.

Filing Asbestos Wrongful Death Lawsuits

Wrongful death lawsuits are commonly filed by estates representing the named deceased who suffered a fatal illness directly attributed to asbestos exposure. The estate representative must have an expressed interest in the matter and have legal authority or “standing” to file a civil lawsuit complaint. That can be the executor of the deceased’s will, closest next-of-kin or someone recognized and appointed by the court to act on the deceased’s behalf. Sometimes, that duty is assigned to a law firm.

There are three criteria for supporting a wrongful death lawsuit. That is a general legal framework applying to all wrongful death claims including ones dealing with asbestos exposure.

Plaintiffs for the deceased must show:

  • Exposure: Proof must include the deceased was known to be exposed to asbestos materials at a specific location or locations over a claimed period. This can be by work recorded, job description, assigned duties and attestations by former coworkers who describe exposure conditions. Proof also to show the deceased suffered an asbestos-caused illness that caused their death. Medical records and caregivers are the best source for this.
  • Negligence: Proving negligence on the defendant’s part is integral to supporting a wrongful death suit. The defendant had to know or ought to have known their product or workplace presented clear health hazards from ongoing asbestos exposure. This is a vital legal element. Often, negligence is established by a company’s history of exposing many other workers. Sometimes, wrongful death lawsuits are attached to class actions.
  • Impact: Wrongful death lawsuits must show the survivors suffered a clear impact from the death. Legal precedent holds that the deceased is no longer eligible for medical expense or personal suffering compensation. Living plaintiffs must prove they have impact in way of lost financial support, companionship and guidance. Emotional suffering and punitive damage compensation also form part of survivor impact claims.

Eligibility for Filing Asbestos Wrongful Death Lawsuits

Eligibility is the other main difference between a live plaintiff claiming legal compensation for their asbestos-related disease suffering and a second party filing a wrongful death suit. Without question, a living plaintiff is eligible to describe their complaint and pursue legal action. It’s not so straightforward for descendants or non-related parties to take action against a negligent party responsible for a death.

Although the United States justice system closely follows the same process for filing, executing and deciding civil lawsuits, each state has slightly different parameters for initiating wrongful death compensation claims. Every state requires the filing plaintiff to have clear legal authority and be recognized by the court having jurisdiction.

Most states allow these parties to file wrongful death suits:

  • Executor of the will or court-appointed trustee
  • Legal next-of-kin as prescribed by state law
  • Genetic and legally-adopted children of the deceased
  • Spouse or legally-recognized life partner
  • Other dependents proving a legitimate interest

Asbestos Wrongful Death Lawsuit Process

The wrongful death lawsuit process typically follows a similar path to all civil litigations. The difference is that the claim’s central party is no longer able to testify on their own behalf. However, this is often replaced by previous statements, declarations and depositions made while the subject was alive. It’s also established by witnesses who observed, examined and experienced the now-deceased.

Some states have a marked difference between a wrongful death lawsuit and what’s called a survival action. This legal split is complex and needs addressing by an attorney. Survival actions refer to backdating a wrongful death suit to include compensation for expenses incurred while the subject was alive. Some states have survival actions included in general wrongful death lawsuits. Other states require two separate before and after-death suits.

Wrongful death lawsuits are also governed by each state’s statute of limitations. This means a plaintiff is prohibited from commencing any civil action from a certain point after the wrongful death allegation was first identified. For asbestos-related suits, it’s triggered by when the disease diagnosis was made.

State limitation periods vary from 1 to 6 years.

It’s also important to know that wrongful death lawsuits can be filed in any state, regardless of where the primary incident occurred. Asbestos cases have jurisdiction complications. Many sufferers and decedents worked and lived in various states over their lifetime. Multiple asbestos exposures occurred in different jurisdictions. As well, asbestos products were manufactured in states elsewhere from where exposure occurred.

Legal Representation for Asbestos Wrongful Death Lawsuits

All asbestos-related civil lawsuits are complex and time-consuming. Wrongful death lawsuits can be especially challenging. Often, they’re commenced after the patient passed away. That requires diligent investigation, intricate legal knowledge and great experience in litigating these highly-specialized cases. It’s imperative plaintiffs hire legal firms with the right skills to represent them.

If you’re wondering about what legal options are your best course of action, contact us today. We can connect you with a mesothelioma lawyer near you who can advise you on the next steps for your claim.

View Author and Sources
Sources
  1. United States Courts, “Civil Cases”, Retrieved from http://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/types-cases/civil-cases Accessed on December 27, 2017
  2. Rand Institute for Civil Justice, “Asbestos Litigation Costs and Compensation”, Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/documented_briefings/2005/DB397.pdf Accessed on December 27, 2017
  3. University of California, San Diego, CA, USA, National Bureau of Economic Research, “Mass Tort Litigation: Asbestos”, Retrieved from http://econweb.ucsd.edu/~miwhite/asbestos_springer.pdf Accessed on December 27, 2017
  4. Mark A. Behrens, “What’s New in Asbestos Litigation?” Retrieved from http://www.casact.org/education/clrs/2009/handouts/st1behrens.pdf Accessed on December 27, 2017
  5. Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 18, Number 2—Spring 2004, “Asbestos and the Future of Mass Torts”, Retrieved from http://econweb.ucsd.edu/~miwhite/asbestos-jep-final.pdf Accessed on December 27, 2017
  6. Expert Law, “What is a Wrongful Death Claim?” Retrieved from https://www.expertlaw.com/library/personal-injury-and-torts/what-wrongful-death-claim
    Accessed on December 27, 2017

Last modified: February 19, 2018