As a result of the widespread use of asbestos in manufacturing prior to the 1970s, tens of thousands of Americans were subject to occupational exposure to asbestos. This exposure placed them at particular risk for developing asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, an incurable cancer linked to asbestos. Somewhat similarly, the use of sand and silica in manufacturing processes has harmed some workers in the form of a disease known as silicosis or other impairment.
Although advancements in science and workplace safety have helped reduce the impact of asbestos and silica on workers, a large number of lawsuits are still filed over asbestos and silica exposure.
The asbestos and silica litigation systems have become extremely profitable for mass-tort trial lawyers representing claimants, and thus have resulted in suits known to be rife with fraud and abuse.
Trial lawyers have aggressively recruited plaintiffs for lawsuits, set up mass-screening enterprises known as “lawsuit mills,” and paid select doctors millions of dollars to conduct mass screenings of “patients,” some of whom they never saw in person. Many of the plaintiffs recruited for the lawsuits have had only a passing exposure to asbestos or silica and shown no signs of illness. Thousands of silicosis plaintiffs have been identified as prior asbestos plaintiffs, even though experts have found that an illness from exposure to both substances is medically rare.
The extent of asbestos and silica lawsuit abuse came to light in 2005 when U.S. District Court Judge Janis Graham Jack of Texas issued a scathing opinion in re: Silica Products Liability Litigation that dismissed thousands of potentially fraudulent silicosis claims from court, writing that “these diagnoses were driven by neither health nor justice: they were manufactured for money.” Judge Jack also exposed the collaboration among certain trial lawyers, doctors, and screening companies in bringing these allegedly fraudulent claims to court.
One doctor involved in diagnosing asbestos and silica claimants, Ray Harron, was paid more than $5 million to diagnose more than 53,000 claims. The U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held 19 hearings in 2006 on fraud in asbestos and silica lawsuit mills to further expose the problem. (Read Subcommittee Press Release
Asbestos lawsuits have been crippling to American businesses and workers. Thousands of companies have been named as defendants in asbestos cases, making this type of litigation the most expensive in U.S. history:
– Companies have paid out an estimated $70 billion on over 730,000 asbestos personal injury claims.
– To date 78 companies have filed for bankruptcy due to asbestos litigation liabilities, costing as many as 60,000 Americans their jobs.
– Total corporate asbestos liability to U.S. plaintiffs is expected to reach or exceed anywhere from $150 - $210 billion.
While silicosis causes, on average, fewer than 200 deaths per year in the United States, the number of silicosis plaintiffs jumped to close to 20,000 in lawsuits filed in a few southern states.
But the scope of asbestos and silica litigation isn't just a problem for business. Truly injured victims of asbestos- and silica-related diseases are being under-compensated because plaintiffs with little or no evidence of impairment are receiving payments, resulting in a reduced pool of available funds and the possible bankruptcy of other companies.
Legislation to reform the asbestos and silica litigation systems has been proposed at both the state and national levels, and even some trial lawyers representing the victims of asbestos-related diseases have called for reform. The U.S. Supreme Court has also recognized the problem and has struck down asbestos class action cases in 1997 and 1999 as "too large and diverse to be represented in a single action." Justice David Souter wrote, "The elephantine mass of asbestos cases ... defies customary judicial administration and calls for national legislation."
The states of Texas, Ohio, Florida, South Carolina, Kansas and Georgia have passed legislation in recent years establishing medical criteria for asbestos and silica exposure, and the state of Tennessee passed a bill establishing medical criteria solely for silica exposure. The U.S. Congress has considered various reforms as well.