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The history of litigation and law-making involving asbestos exposure and its link to deadly mesothelioma cancer is long and filled with corporate lies, deception, and backroom dealings that sought to keep the serious public health risks under wraps.
Asbestos was used in thousands of commercial products for decades before its cancer-causing properties became clear to the general public in the 1960s. Scientists and some asbestos manufacturers, however, had known since the 1930s that exposure to asbestos-containing products could result in cancerous mesothelioma and other severe health problems.
This crucial information was kept from the general public for about 30 years, during which time many people suffered devastating injuries and died due to exposure to asbestos.
Landmark Asbestos Lawsuit Filed
The first asbestos-related lawsuit (Tomplait v. Johns-Manville) was filed in December 1966. Claude Tomplait, an asbestos worker from Lake Charles, Louisiana, had been diagnosed with asbestosis, a respiratory condition that commonly results in cancerous mesothelioma.
Tomplait filed a lawsuit against 11 manufacturers of asbestos-containing insulation products, alleging failure to warn. Tomplaint’s lawsuit claimed the defendants knew or should have known that their products were harmful, but failed to warn him and others of the risks.
Tomplaint’s landmark lawsuit ended with mixed results. A settlement was eventually reached with five of the 11 defendants after the rest of the companies were either dropped from the suit or found not liable. His lawsuit, however, effectively paved the way for tens of thousands of similar lawsuits alleging failure to warn of asbestos dangers against hundreds of asbestos-products manufacturers that continue to be filed today.
The Asbestos Litigation Price Tag
In August 2001, a RAND Institute for Civil Justice report found there had been more than 500,000 asbestos-related claimants and at least 41 defendant corporations had entered bankruptcy due to asbestos litigation costs. In September 2001, a Best’s Review article pegged the eventual total cost of asbestos claims and lawsuits at an estimated $275 billion.
Asbestos Damages Awards
Plaintiffs who successfully sue asbestos-product manufacturers may receive as much as millions of dollars in compensation for their past, present and future medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and other damages.
In April 2010, a Los Angeles jury awarded $200 million in damages to Rhoda Evans, who developed mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos fibers that her husband Bobby carried into their home on his work clothes. Bobby Evans cut asbestos pipes for the Department of Water and Power for twenty years. By contrast, the first person to be awarded court damages for asbestos-related injuries in 1969 received just $79,000.
Of course, the amount of damages a plaintiff may receive in compensatory and punitive damages depends entirely on the particular facts of their case. The extent of their injuries, the length of time they were exposed to asbestos, the conduct of the defendants, and other factors are used by judges and juries to assess financial damages, which can vary greatly from case to case. In short, no two mesothelioma or asbestos-exposure lawsuits are created equal.
Court Opinions Take Aim at Asbestos Companies
Through the years, many courts have issued opinions that were extremely critical of asbestos-product makers. In some cases, courts have held that asbestos makers willingly concealed the known dangers of asbestos exposure for years, not only from their own employees, but also from the general public.
Here are some examples of court opinions that sternly questioned the actions of asbestos companies:
The court found the manufacturer of asbestos products had evidence of asbestosis and a link to cancer, as well as the fact that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, in studies as early as 1944, but issued no report to warn of the risks until 1951. (Prudential Ins. Co. v. U.S. Gypsum)
Defendant was aware of asbestos hazards, but chose not to disclose the information or place warning stickers on products until 1970. “This conduct clearly amounts to an utter indifference to, or conscious disregard for the safety of others,” the court ruled. (Kochan v. Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp.)
The court used the word “appalling” to describe how the defendant corporation Johns-Manville had so much information on the hazards of asbestos workers as early as the 1930s. The company not only failed to protect its own workers, but also tried to withhold the information from the public. (Fischer v. Johns-Manville)
The U.S. has passed several laws to regulate asbestos use and establish guidelines for the removal and managing of asbestos in buildings. It is estimated nearly one million buildings nationwide were built using asbestos, so the potential for harm is great.
Asbestos Information Act of 1988 (H.R. 5442). This federal law was intended to facilitate the early identification of the manufacturer or processor of a particular type of asbestos or asbestos-containing material. Legislators said the earlier identification could help reduce the time and costs associated with naming parties as defendants in asbestos litigation in which the products manufactured or processed by such person were not used in building which is the subject of the litigation.
The law required asbestos product manufacturers to submit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), information on the types or classes of products, the years of manufacture, and other identifying characteristics of their asbestos-containing products. The EPA must then publish this information.
U.S. Code Title 15, Chapter 53, Sections 2641-2656. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response code sections established federal regulations requiring inspection of asbestos-containing materials in school buildings nationwide. In doing so, Congress cited a “lack of regulatory guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency” on the proper handling and removal of toxic asbestos.
Congress also found that the directions provided in 1986 by the EPA in its “Guidance for Controlling Asbestos-Containing Material in Buildings” were insufficient in detail to ensure adequate responses.
Asbestos still presents a serious threat to public health and thousands of people are diagnosed each year with mesothelioma cancer linked to exposure to asbestos. Injured parties should consult with a qualfied asbestos and mesothelioma attorney as soon as possible to determine the extent of their possible legal rights.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified asbestos lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local asbestos attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.
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