By now, the tragedy of asbestos litigation should have been an old story. Hundreds of thousands of laborers--shipyard workers, construction workers and sometimes their wives and children--have been made sick, sometimes fatally, by the asbestos fibers they inhaled. The Dickensian saga of their injury claims stands as a monument to corporate greed and the civil courts' failures, however the asbestos story is still without an ending. A report released last month from Rand's Institute for Civil Justice finds that, 20 years after the first wave of lawsuits, lawyers are filing more asbestos injury suits than ever.
Asbestos, used for decades as insulation in homes, ships, brake linings and many other products, can cause a variety of disabling or fatal lung illnesses, including cancer. Uncounted millions of Americans have been exposed to the fibers. Residents of tiny Libby, Mont., where asbestos-laced vermiculite was mined, are among the latest wave. Many of those afflicted never worked at the Zonolite Mountain mine or lived with anyone who did. They simply breathed the air coming from the mine.
Some companies knew the asbestos in their products was dangerous but chose not to protect or even warn their workers. By the 1970s, those workers, many disabled and desperately ill, started suing their bosses. Over half a million people have now filed claims, yet Rand researchers estimate that ultimately the number will more than double.
Over the past 20 years, this crush of claims has pushed at least 41 defendant corporations into bankruptcy, and insurers have paid out a staggering $21 billion. But what of the majority of the injured workers and their families? For too many, the promise of fair and prompt resolution of their claims has been shattered by stonewalling corporate defendants, years of procedural delays, and the pittance they finally received. Whether justice will be served for the many people yet to become ill remains to be seen.