The history of asbestos litigation trends is one that’s both long and sad. It has provided important lessons on the human impact the details of civil procedure can have on workplace safety. Even though legal battles over the use of asbestos are nearly 100 years old, the lawsuits are still coming with ever-greater frequency.
A brief background
The value of asbestos lies in the fact that its properties are resistant to fire. The mineral had great value in a wide range of products, most notably, construction materials. But the dangers were apparent as early as the 1920s.
Those that worked closely with asbestos were getting sick years after the fact. The most common and well-known diagnosis today is malignant mesothelioma, a cancer that begins in the chest or stomach.
The mineral has been in use for hundreds of years because of its notable properties. Its fire and chemical resistance led to a booming asbestos industry, one that is still worth millions of dollars each year in certain parts of the world.
Nellie Kershaw, a spinner in England, brought the first known legal claim on asbestos. Nellie inhaled asbestos every day, was experiencing health problems by the age of 29 and passed away at the age of 33. While she didn’t personally win any compensation, her case started England on the road to stricter regulation of asbestos.
Five years later in 1929, Anna Pirskowski brought the first asbestos lawsuit in the United States. Like Kershaw, Anna didn’t get justice for herself, but she set the stage for more lawsuits and important changes in the legal process.
The statute of limitations was a big problem for workers with malignant mesothelioma, which doesn’t appear until years after the fact. By the 1960s, states were recognizing that flexibility was needed for those so diagnosed. Workers’ comp laws were amended to start the clock ticking when the disease was diagnosed, rather than the time of exposure.
Furthermore, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were updated to make class action lawsuits easier to file and possible for class action to come from a larger group of people. The possibility of workers exposed to asbestos uniting and bringing a large-scale lawsuit was now much more viable.
Where we’re at today
Malignant mesothelioma is slowly and thankfully declining today as everyone becomes more aware of the dangers asbestos presents. Yet the lawsuits are actually on the way up. While that may seem counterintuitive, it’s really just a reflection of the fact that the disease manifests itself years after exposure.
“It’s what you would have anticipated,” said Joseph Lahav, an attorney for The Mesothelioma Center regarding the results of the study. “There is more awareness of the dangers of asbestos and it’s just not out there as much. At the same time, people are much more aware of their legal options today.”