Florida District Court Throws Out Asbestos Lawsuit Limitations

Thousands of asbestos victims received new hope when a 4 th District Court of Appeal panel threw out a state law aimed at limiting the number of people who could sue for asbestos-related conditions in Florida. The law, the Florida Asbestos and Silica Compensation Fairness Act, went into effect on July 1, 2005, and set impairment standards that a plaintiff had to meet before being allowed to file suit in a Florida court. Under the law, patients with asbestosis had to have lost at least 20 percent of their lung capacity. Those with lung cancer had to demonstrate that they also had asbestosis and had lost lung capacity. Writing for the unanimous court, Judge Gary Farmer declared that the Act could not be applied to take away the rights of those who already had lawsuits pending when it passed. That reversed 13 previous decisions by a Palm Beach circuit court that had upheld the act’s retroactive effect on those lawsuits, reinstating the suits. In addition, the court ruled that the Act could not apply to new plaintiffs either, essentially neutralizing the entire law. Defenders of the law claimed that it was intended to streamline the asbestos litigation process by removing plaintiffs without sufficiently serious causes of action.

Opponents, however, said that they were happy with the new ruling, and that as many as 4,000 asbestos cases in Florida may now be viable. John Pelzer, who handled the case for the asbestos industry, said that he was disappointed in the ruling, declaring that the law was intended to “put people who were sick at the head of the line.” Pelzer is a partner at Ruden McCloskey Smith Schuster and Russell in Fort Lauderdale. He stated that the court;s ruling “is an attempt to undo that effort and put us back to what I call the Dark Ages of asbestos litigation where people who aren’t really sick are cutting in the line ahead of people who are sick,.” Other attorneys disputed this viewpoint, claiming that asbestos litigation was not clogging the courts in Florida. Pelzer said an appeal was likely, probably based on a conflict between the Fourth District Court’s ruling and a ruling by the Third District Court that the retroactivity provision (and thus the statute as a whole) was valid. The Fourth District Court acknowledged the division in its ruling, making an appeal more likely to be heard by the Florida Supreme Court.