Asbestos litigation refers to the legal actions taken by individuals who have been exposed to asbestos and have developed related health problems. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used extensively in construction and industrial applications due to its heat-resistant properties. Unfortunately, prolonged exposure to asbestos can lead to serious health issues, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Asbestos litigation has been ongoing for decades and has evolved in response to changing legal and social factors.
This essay will explore asbestos litigation trends, including the history of asbestos litigation, the evolution of legal theories and damages, and recent developments in asbestos litigation.
History of Asbestos Litigation
Asbestos litigation began in the 1960s and 1970s when workers and consumers exposed to asbestos began to file lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers and other companies that used asbestos products. These lawsuits were based on theories of negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. Plaintiffs argued that the defendants knew or should have known about the dangers of asbestos but failed to warn or protect workers and consumers.
Initially, plaintiffs faced significant obstacles in pursuing asbestos lawsuits. Many defendants argued that the plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by factors other than asbestos exposure, such as smoking or pre-existing health conditions. Additionally, asbestos manufacturers and their insurers were often able to settle cases for relatively small amounts, allowing them to avoid the cost and negative publicity of a trial.
However, as more evidence emerged linking asbestos exposure to serious health problems, and as public awareness of the dangers of asbestos grew, plaintiffs began to have more success in asbestos lawsuits. In the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of asbestos lawsuits were filed, and juries began awarding significant damages to plaintiffs.
Evolution of Legal Theories and Damages
Asbestos litigation has evolved significantly over the past several decades, with changes in legal theories and damages.
Initially, most asbestos lawsuits were based on negligence theories, which required plaintiffs to prove that the defendant had a duty to protect them from harm, breached that duty, and caused their injuries. However, as the link between asbestos exposure and health problems became more established, plaintiffs began to pursue strict liability claims. Strict liability does not require proof of negligence but instead imposes liability on defendants who create or distribute a product that is unreasonably dangerous. Under strict liability, plaintiffs must prove that they were exposed to the defendant’s asbestos product and that the product caused their injuries.
In addition to changes in legal theories, damages in asbestos lawsuits have also evolved. Initially, damages in asbestos lawsuits were relatively low, reflecting the fact that asbestos-related health problems often took years or decades to develop. However, as juries began to award larger damages in asbestos cases, defendants and insurers began to negotiate larger settlements.
One important factor that has influenced damages in asbestos cases is the role of punitive damages. Punitive damages are designed to punish defendants for particularly egregious conduct and to deter similar conduct in the future. In asbestos cases, plaintiffs have often sought punitive damages based on allegations that defendants knew or should have known about the dangers of asbestos but failed to warn or protect workers and consumers. While punitive damages in asbestos cases have been controversial and subject to limitations by some state courts, they continue to be an important factor in many asbestos settlements.
Recent Developments in Asbestos Litigation
Despite the decline in asbestos use in the United States, asbestos litigation remains a significant area of legal activity. In recent years, there have been several important developments in asbestos litigation.
One significant development has been the emergence of new defendants in asbestos lawsuits. While asbestos manufacturers and their insurers were the primary defendants in early asbestos litigation, plaintiffs have increasingly targeted other companies that used asbestos products, such as construction companies, shipbuilders, and railroad companies. Plaintiffs have also targeted companies that manufactured products that contained asbestos.
The use of bankruptcy trusts has become a significant trend in asbestos litigation over the past few decades. According to a report by the RAND Corporation, as of 2020, there were more than 60 active asbestos bankruptcy trusts in the United States, with total assets of approximately $30 billion. These trusts have paid out billions of dollars in compensation to asbestos victims, and continue to do so today.
In recent years, the trends in asbestos litigation have shifted. One notable trend is the decline in the number of asbestos-related lawsuits. According to data from the RAND Corporation, the number of asbestos-related lawsuits filed each year has declined steadily since the early 2000s. This decline is due in part to the fact that many of the largest asbestos manufacturers have already filed for bankruptcy or have been forced out of business as a result of the large number of asbestos-related lawsuits they faced.
Another trend that has emerged in recent years is the increasing use of asbestos trusts to compensate victims. As we mentioned earlier, many asbestos manufacturers established bankruptcy trusts to compensate victims, and these trusts have become an important source of compensation.