Feb. 7, 2006
No Logjam of Asbestos Lawsuits in the Courts, Public Citizen Reveals in a New Report
As U.S. Senate Takes Up Measure for $140 Billion Federal Trust Fund, a Central Premise of the Legislation Is False, Report Shows
WASHINGTON, D.C. – State and federal courts are adequately handling asbestos injury lawsuits and are not buckling under any crushing caseload, a new report from Public Citizen shows. This finding undercuts one of the key arguments advanced by supporters of a proposed $140 billion federal asbestos compensation trust fund.
The U.S. Senate this week takes up the legislation, S. 852. Business and industry interests backing it say a key reason it is urgently needed is that a flood of asbestos exposure lawsuits has overrun the nation’s court systems, choking off access not only to deserving asbestos victims but also to others with business before the judiciary.
Public Citizen, however examined nationwide statistical data and conducted interviews with judges and attorneys from California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Texas and West Virginia – which are among states with the highest number of asbestos claims – and found no evidence to support that claim. The report provides a comprehensive examination of the effect of asbestos lawsuits on court dockets.
“This bill is not fair or just or supported by factual evidence,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “In fact, the courts are not paralyzed with asbestos cases. And the federal trust fund is, in reality, an industry plan to wipe out tens of billions of dollars in corporate liability under the guise of helping victims. This report documents that the bill’s supporters are trumping up lies to sell their corporate bailout plan.”
Also, Claybrook said, it’s important to note that even though courts are satisfactorily handling the asbestos caseload, that doesn’t mean the proposed federal trust fund is adequately funded. According to several studies, the trust fund is unlikely to have enough money because the number of claims will exceed official projections. “It’s important to understand the two concepts are very different,” she said.
Highlights of the report include:
- In federal courts, which account for about 20 percent of asbestos cases, new federal filings have declined from 9,111 in 1998 to 1,471 in 2004, a drop of 84 percent, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
- The number of asbestos product liability trials in federal courts is down sharply in recent years, from 271 in 1991 to zero in several recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Asbestos product liability trials account for a tiny fraction of all federal tort trial terminations – one out of 1,000 (.1 percent) in 2002-03, down from four out of 1,000 (.4 percent) in 1996-97.
- In state courts, among tort cases disposed of by trial for 2001 in the nation’s 75 largest counties (which together account for about 23 percent of the population), there were 31 asbestos trials – only .4 percent of an estimated total of 7,948 cases, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
- Among major categories of state cases, asbestos product liability cases going to trial had the shortest median period for disposition in 2001, the latest period for which information is available, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. While disposition time for other case categories changed little from 1996, the disposition time for asbestos trials fell by 80 percent, from 50 months to 10 months.
- The Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust, a fund formed in 1988 to settle asbestos claims involving Johns-Manville Corp., and which is seen as a bellwether for claim activity, has seen filings fall sharply. From a peak of 101,200 new claims in 2003, filings fell by about 85 percent in 2004 to 14,600, before rebounding slightly in 2005 to 21,000.
- In states like New York, Georgia, Florida, California and Texas, which have had a significant number of asbestos case filings, new filings are decreasing or caseloads are dwindling, and judges and attorneys report there is little difficulty moving asbestos cases through the system.
Already, courts have at their disposal a variety of ways to handle asbestos claims, according to Public Citizen’s canvassing of judges and attorneys involved in the cases. These include:
- “Inactive dockets,” in which victims file claims but have action delayed until they show signs of more serious asbestos-related disease.
- “Medical criteria,” which prevent an action from being brought unless threshold symptoms of illness are met.
- Litigation protocols known as “case management orders,” which are designed to facilitate fair, quick resolution of claims, while minimizing transaction costs for the parties.
- Court efficiency measures, such as electronic filing of documents, that speed resolution of cases.
- The expediting of cases filed by more severely injured victims.
“The courts already make wide use of these techniques to handle asbestos cases, which only underscores our finding that asbestos cases are not strangling the courts,” said Chris Schmitt, civil justice research director at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch and author of the report. “This should give pause to those who would support the bill.”