Asbestos and mesothelioma litigation make up the longest running and most costly tort in U.S. history, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon. With more than 10,000 cases of asbestos-related injuries diagnosed each year, the size and scope of this wide-reaching legal phenomenon is almost guaranteed to continue expanding during the coming decade.
The first wave of mesothelioma litigation didn’t roll in until the 1970s but was preceded by a case dating back to 1929, in which an asbestos manufacturer was sued for injury by a worker who had grown ill after experiencing regular exposure to materials the company made. As part of that first asbestos settlement, the attorneys involved agreed not to bring future cases against the makers of asbestos products – an action that likely helped to keep asbestos liability issues out of the legal limelight for several years to come.
Workers compensation cases continued quietly over the next three decades, as growing concern about the health hazards connected to inhalation of asbestos fibers permeated the medical community at large. Mesothelioma litigation remained a stagnant legal arena, as manufacturers and installers of asbestos products readily denied medical evidence suggesting the danger of working with or around their yields.
The U.S. government finally took an official stance on the asbestos issue when the Environmental Protection Agency listed it as a dangerous air pollutant via the Clean Air Act of 1970. The next ten years brought a swarm of mesothelioma litigation proceedings and solidified the growing reputation of asbestos as a toxic hazard. Ironically, however, this decade also marked the peak of asbestos-material imports in the U.S. – though a steep and sharp decline would rapidly follow.
The 1980s brought continued legal action against asbestos manufacturers, and the financial toll being taken became increasingly apparent. Two landmark events occurred in 1982. A claimant won the largest-to-date settlement award, totaling almost four million dollars in combined compensatory and punitive damages. That same year, a virtual giant of the asbestos manufacturing industry became the largest company in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy – a trend that picked up speed as that decade progressed.
The 1980s were capped off with an official ban on asbestos use in the U.S., courtesy of the EPA – though this action was soon after reversed and exchanged for strict regulations on production and applications.
The cost of mesothelioma litigation eventually wreaked havoc on companies that depended primarily on the manufacture of asbestos products, with more than half of the country’s largest producers bankrupt by the beginning of the 1990s.
Meanwhile, diagnoses of malignant mesothelioma and other cancers continued to multiply, as the long latency period on these and other related illnesses began to reach the point of culmination for thousands of laborers from the first part of the century. This is a trend that continues today.
Although individual state governments have made some effort to regulate mesothelioma litigation by imposing statutes of limitation – or time constraints – on the window to file suit against asbestos manufacturers after diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness, the federal government has taken no legislative regulatory action as of yet.