Asbestos "Disaster" Paralysing US Courts
In a high-profile speech to the National Press Club on June 13, 2002, former Attorney General Griffin B. Bell1 spoke of a "disaster of major proportions," which has left the U.S. judicial system floundering2. Expressing concern for plaintiffs with asbestos cancers, he said: "they deserve a system that efficiently and fairly compensates them. They do not now have such a system." The escalation of claims has outstripped the economyís ability to pay for them: "Some experts predict that asbestos liability could cost companies $275 billion. That amount exceeds current estimates of the cost of all Superfund cleanup sites combined, Hurricane Andrew or the September 11th terrorist attacks." As the original asbestos defendants go bankrupt, the search for new and deeper pockets has brought thousands of new companies into the firing line thereby jeopardising the livelihoods and pensions of employees throughout the country.
Despite calls by the Supreme Court that Congress act to "impose fair and reasonable standards," no solution has been forthcoming. In this vacuum, Bell recommended federal courts adopt procedures to remedy the excesses under which the system is collapsing. These include:
barring cases based on mass X-ray screenings;
dismissing cases brought by "unimpaired plaintiffs;
appointing independent experts to validate medical diagnoses;
tightening up on evidence requirements for product identification.
Steven Kazan, Senior Partner at the California law firm of Kazan, McClain, Edises, Abrams, Fernandez, Lyons & Farrise, only represents plaintiffs with asbestos cancers. He believes that "Griffin Bell has pointed to many of the very real problems that beset both the real American asbestos victims and the courts currently deluged with hordes of healthy claimants seeking money for nothing much wrong. His proposed solutions are sound and would be of great help, but I fear are unlikely to be implemented, since they would require a nationwide exercise of integrity and moral leadership by those very courts and lawyers who have to date been reluctant to face up to the problems. He is correct, also, that a legislative solution is preferable, but I believe unduly pessimistic about its chances. He has made a significant contribution to the public debate on these important issues."
June 27, 2002
1 Bell served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit from 1961-1976. He was Attorney General from 1977-1979.
2 This speech was based on a privately-commissioned report entitled: Asbestos Litigation and Judicial Leadership: The Courts' Duty to Help Solve the Asbestos Litigation Crisis by Griffin B. Bell, Wick Sollers and Mark Jensen. The full text of Bellís speech can be viewed at: http://www.NLCPI.org