With Walter occupied on a deadline and Ted on the road, I’m happy to be back to wrap up my discussion of developments in asbestos litigation, as summarized in the Manhattan Institute’s recently released Trial Lawyers, Inc.: Asbestos report. As I noted last month, asbestos has an ancient history, and in the early part of the last century, it was deemed a “magic mineral”; its flame-retardant properties protected American naval vessels and schoolhouses from fire. (See here.) Unfortunately, asbestos exposure ultimately proved deadly, the plaintiffs’ lawyers pounced, and the American asbestos industry largely went bankrupt by the early 1980s. (See here.) The trusts created to pay out claimants from these bankrupt entities became a big business unto themselves, swamped with claimants and unable fairly or efficiently to process the claims. (See here.)
What happened next, in the 1990s and early part of this decade, amounts in large part to the systemization of fraud, through a business model the trial lawyers developed to extract as much money as possible out of the asbestos well. As we point out in our Trial Lawyers, Inc. report, this business model “starts with marketing (recruiting plaintiffs), followed by production (eagerly screening prospective plaintiffs for purported lung impairment and usually finding it), packaging (bundling cases into a “mass” of tort claims), and sales (overwhelming courts and defendants to extract settlements).” At each stage of the process, the business exemplifies major problems with American jurisprudence. I’ll start with marketing.
Lawyers’ ability to “market” for clients is founded in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, which determined that attorney advertising is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. That ruling may well have been right as a matter of constitutional law, but it effectively gutted prohibitions on attorney solitication of clients and led to attorney-driven litigation. In the asbestos context, solicitation of clients became truly laughable, as ne’er-do-wells attracted potential plaintiffs to screening vans parked outside union halls or strip malls:
Heath Mason, a junior-college dropout with no legal or medical training who made $25.5 million from asbestos litigation. Mason’s role was attracting potential plaintiffs to “screening clinics” that interviewed and “tested” them, usually in trailers hauled to restaurant, shopping-center, or motel parking lots. Mason would lure passersby with attractive women he called his “lawyer girls,” such as the two young lawyers he met at an unidentified convention in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and later persuaded to stand on a Fort Worth street corner with signs directing potential plaintiffs to an X-ray screening van in a Staples parking lot.
Today, marketing tactics are also of the sophisticated variety. As Overlawyered readers are aware, the most expensive Google ad-search terms involve “asbestos” and “mesothelioma.”