On October 1-2, the ABA TIPS Asbestos Litigation Task Force held its second round of hearings at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. The Task Force was created to study the current state of asbestos litigation and consider ways in which fairness for both claimants and defendants can be achieved. The L.A. hearing, as well as an earlier hearing in Washington, D.C., revealed deep divisions among plaintiffs' attorneys and defendant attorneys on what needs to be done to deal with current aspects of what the U.S. Supreme Court once described as an "elephantine mass." Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp., 527 U.S. 815, 821 (1999).
A 1991 Report of The Judicial Conference Ad Hoc Committee on Asbestos Litigation 2-3 (Mar. 1991) sets forth the challenge: "[This] is a tale of danger known in the 1930s, exposure inflicted upon millions of Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, injuries that began to take their toll in the 1960s, and a flood of lawsuits beginning in the 1970s. On the basis of past and current filing data, and because of a latency period that may last as long as 40 years for some asbestos related diseases, a continuing stream of claims can be expected. The final toll of asbestos related injuries is unknown. Predictions have been made of 200,000 asbestos disease deaths before the year 2000 and as many as 265,000 by the year 2015."
We are only two years away from that date, and the asbestos litigation has morphed significantly and shows no sign of abating any time soon. Back in 1991, the Judicial Conference report identified numerous problems: growing dockets in state and federal courts; delays in getting to trial; long trials with complex issues being litigated over and over; transaction costs that dwarfed any recovery. Additionally, "the exhaustion of assets threatens and distorts the process; and future claimants may lose altogether." One piece of "good news" is that the federal MDL that was established in the same year is near completion of the resolution of most of the cases filed in the federal courts.