Asbestos litigation: foundations

by James Copland on May 9, 2008

Asbestos litigation has been around a long time. Early on, nothing like modern product liability law existed (see Richard Epstein’s discussion here); lawsuits resided in workplace injury law when filed in the 1920s and 30s, and were soon subsumed in workers compensation reforms.

Modern asbestos litigation began after the Selikoff study was published in 1964. In December 1965, Texas attorney Ward Stephenson filed a case on behalf of Claude Tomplait, who had worked as an asbestos insulator. Four years later, Stephenson extracted a settlement for $75,000 from seven defendants.

Notwithstanding this meager beginning, Stephenson persisted in asbestos litigation and won a major victory in Borel v. Fibreboard Paper Products Corp., 493 F.2d 1076 (1973), in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found asbestos manufacturers strictly liable for their workers’ injuries. The Borel court rejected statute of limitations, contributory negligence, and assumption of risk defenses; and modern asbestos product liability litigation was born.

The litigation got another shot in the arm when New Jersey attorney Karl Asch uncovered the “Sumner-Simpson papers,” which “described in great detail the efforts of Raybestos, Johns-Manville, and other manufacturers to find out about the hazards of asbestos, develop strategies to deal with them, and–most important–to keep that knowledge from the public and workers.” These documents were put to great effect by South Carolina lawyer Ron Motley, who actually used the papers to convince a South Carolina circuit judge to grant a new trial after a jury had ruled in favor of asbestos defendants. Motley of course went on to become an asbestos super-lawyer and an architect of the multibillion-dollar multistate tobacco settlement; his antics are well-known to long-time readers of this site.

Two more foundational cases are worthy of mention. In 1981, the D.C. Circuit ruled that insurers who had written asbestos policies were liable for the maximum insured between exposure and diagnosis, rather than only in the year of diagnosis. See Keene Corp. v Insurance Co. of North America, 667 F.2d 1034 (D.C. Cir. 1981). Given the long latency between asbestos exposure and ultimate illness, the level of insurance exposure was suddenly massive. Circuit Judge Patricia Wald warned that the court’s decision “requires a leap of logic from existing precedent, for it concerns diseases about which there is no medical certainty as to precisely how or when they occur.”

In 1982, the New Jersey Supreme Court threw out the “state of the art” defense for asbestos manufacturers, in essence holding that it mattered not whether business practice was the best available to the industry at the time the injury occurred. See Beshada v. Johns-Manville Products Corp., 442 A.2d 539 (N.J. 1982). The court opined, “The burden of illness from dangerous products such as asbestos should be placed upon those who profit from its production and, more generally, upon society at large which reaps the benefits of the various products our economy manufactures. ”

Thus, in less than a decade, the law was radically shifted, and asbestos litigation was born: “The decade after Borel saw 25,000 asbestos cases filed. By 1981, more than 200 companies and insurers had been sued; by 1982, defendants’ costs had topped $1 billion.” But these early years were just the beginning…