Today it is widely understood that asbestos is a dangerous carcinogen and toxin; though it is still used in some industries, there are many health advocates and workers’ safety advocates working to change that.
Asbestos was once widely used in the United States; once factories were streamlined during the industrial revolution, its ability to insulate against heat and fire and its cheap price made it a very popular component for industries ranging from ship building to construction.
Concerns about the safety of asbestos started to be raised as early as the 1930s when physicians and employers started to take note of the fact that employees were being diagnosed with a variety of illnesses, some of which resulted in their death.
Some factory owners and company executives actually commissioned a study into the mysterious deaths, but unfortunately, upon learning of the dangers of asbestos, they did not act to warn their employees or to protect them.
Today nearly 2,500 cases of mesothelioma, the deadliest of asbestos-related conditions, are diagnosed every year, and thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the companies and employers responsible for the illnesses that the exposure has caused.
The First Asbestos Cases
Though mesothelioma and asbestos suits are common today, there was a time when there was no consideration given to suing an employer, even for as egregious a situation as has been posed by asbestos exposure.
In fact, it was not until the mid -1960s that an attorney named Ward Stephenson represented a worker diagnosed with asbestos; the case named eleven different defendants, all manufacturers of products containing asbestos.
Stephenson lost that case, but soon filed another on behalf of another employee, and was victorious. Not only was this a landmark case, but also made the general public much more aware of the dangers of asbestos exposure.
Since that time, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related lawsuits have been filed on behalf of thousands of victims and their families, with awards in the millions being outlined by juries in some cases.
Liability Laws and Mesothelioma
One of the reasons that mesothelioma lawsuits have been so successful for so many victims is a result of a clarification of tort law that was published at the same time that these first asbestos cases were prosecuted.
This restatement indicated that if a product was sold that was dangerous to the user or consumer, then the person or entity that sold it was responsible for the damages.
The same restatement indicated that in cases where a warning of the dangers was given, the entity would not be liable, but because the asbestos manufacturers and related companies did not provide any warning despite knowing of the dangers of asbestos exposure, that made them liable for realized, unrealized and punitive damages.
Though some manufacturers and employers tried to skirt their responsibility and force employees and victims to rely upon workers compensation, these attempts were largely denied because the damage represented by mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are far more traumatic than what workers compensation was designed for.
With so many mesothelioma cases being filed following the initial victories, the asbestos companies found themselves the subject of increasing damage claims – by the year 2002 nearly $70 billion dollars had been paid out to victims.
The companies began to file for bankruptcy protection in order to protect themselves from the claims. As a result, the bankruptcy courts established bankruptcy trusts specifically addressing the issues of asbestos-related claims, and large amounts of money were set aside so that the companies could continue to operate and protect their assets while still paying victims.
Though these funds were established with what had been thought to be adequate monies, there are now concerns about the number of asbestos cases that have yet to be diagnosed, and whether or not there will be adequate money to cover future asbestos victims.