It’s the longest lasting class action litigation in American history with more than 750,000 plaintiffs and hundreds of billions of dollars in claims. Award-winning reporter John Camp tries to sort out the facts and myths about the massive lawsuits against the producers of asbestos products in this new LPB documentary The Breathtaking Cost of Asbestos.
Asbestos was introduced in the United States at the turn of the 20 th century and has been used in products ranging from insulation to car brakes. In the 1930s it was discovered that prolonged exposure to asbestos could cause cancer and other respiratory problems, but the dangers were concealed for more than four decades by producers of the materials.
Since the cover-up was revealed in the 1970s, a tidal wave of lawsuits have been filed. Yeshiva University Law Professor Lester Brickman calls the asbestos issue “the mother of all litigations.”
An estimated 20,000 cases are currently pending in Louisiana with thousands more already settled. One reason there are so many cases in Louisiana and Mississippi is the large number of people who worked in construction on petrochemical plants and in the shipyards during the construction boom which started in the 1950s. So many cases are showing up now because it often takes 30 to 40 years for the effects of prolonged asbestos exposure to surface. The most common ailment is asbestosis, a debilitating lung disease that slowly smothers its victims over a period of years. Asbestos can also cause mesothelioma, a form of cancer that can kill its victim in months.
This documentary tries to sort out the legal wrangling and the charges and countercharges in this 200 billion dollar litigation which is now at the center of the national debate over tort reform.
It also puts a human face on the effects of asbestos with profiles of a former worker who fears that he may have cancer and a Mississippi man who is in the final stages of asbestosis. He died while the documentary was still in production.
However some attorneys question the validity of many of the claims.
“Seven hundred fifty thousand claims have been filed, most of them, by some estimates, 80 to 90% of those claims are made by people who aren’t sick,“ Michael Baroody, the executive director of the Asbestos Alliance of the National Manufacturers of America.
The documentary includes a wide range of experts in the field of asbestos including The Association of Trial Lawyers of America former president Fred Baron, U.S. Senators Patty Murray, Patrick Leahy and George Voinovich and retired Louisiana AFL-CIO President Victor Bussie.
There are efforts in Congress to set up a Victim Compensation Fund that would cap the amount of liability against the companies being sued. Proponents say this would guarantee that the true victims would get the help they need because many companies file for bankruptcy protection when they lose these suits. Opponents say it’s just a way for the company’s to avoid responsibility for decades of wrongdoing.
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Credit: New-York Historical Society - "Great Egret," painted in Louisiana 1821