Supreme Court agrees to rule in two asbestos litigation cases Findings could redefine role of sweeping lawsuits involving injury claims

November 02, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to rule on two new attempts to divert masses of asbestos injury claims away from the courts, raising the hopes of activists who want to curb lawsuits as a way of dealing with society's problems.

The court granted review of these controversies:

A move to revive a lawyers' settlement deal that would have paid at least $1.3 billion to asbestos victims or their survivors, in return for wiping out thousands of existing lawsuits and blocking many thousands more in the future.

A lower court scuttled the deal even while conceding that the settlement was "a brilliant partial solution to the scourge of asbestos."

The settlement would affect as many as 2 million people, including 5,000 to 6,000 Marylanders.

An attempt to bar railroad workers who have been exposed to asbestos on the job from suing for damages if they are not sick yet but fear they will become ill or die in the future -- a dispute that may have repercussions far beyond railroading.

The justices' action puts them into the midst of the continuing national debate over "tort reform" -- a still-widening campaign, energetically pressed in the last Congress, to reduce the role of courts and scale back multimillion-dollar verdicts in cases involving dangerous products and hazardous workplaces.

In one of the cases before the justices, the American Tort Reform Association argued that the time had come to slow the modern explosion of litigation and go back to a "slow, incremental fashion" of developing legal remedies.

A torts professor at the University of Texas, Linda S. Mullinix, commented in a prophetic column last month in a legal newspaper, National Law Journal: "The Supreme Court should stop sitting on the sidelines in the mass tort arena and grant review" of the lawyers' asbestos settlement.

When the court decides the cases, by next summer, it could lay down new ground rules governing how courts react to sweeping lawsuits like those aimed at the tobacco, automobile and dTC asbestos industries, and at manufacturers of breast implants, birth control devices, medicines and chemicals, including weapons used by the military such as Agent Orange.

The ground rules also may affect mass disaster lawsuits such as those that have followed plane crashes, oil spills, or atomic plant meltdowns.

The most immediate effect, though, will be on asbestos cases, which have flowed into the courts over the past decade in batches of thousands in the wake of long-delayed outbreaks of cancer and other serious illnesses to workers.

Court dockets were jammed, long delays set in, and the threat rose that potential damage funds would be paid out to those who sued the earliest, with nothing left for others.

Federal judges handling many of the cases sought to have them consolidated and shifted to one court, in Philadelphia.

That was done five years ago, lumping together some 150,000 pending cases. Lawyers on opposite sides started talking settlement, and after two years had a deal.

A claims-handling system was to be set up, with the amounts awarded varying with the kind of disease suffered.

As a side deal, 14,000 existing lawsuits were scuttled, with a separate payout of $215 million, including $70 million in fees for the lawyers who filed those cases.

The 20 companies that had made asbestos products agreed to the deal only on condition that the case be turned into a class action -- one that would resolve legal claims of virtually everyone who had been exposed to asbestos who had not sued by early 1993.

In addition, the companies were to be protected from new lawsuits, since none could be filed outside the terms of the deal.

Individuals who had been exposed to asbestos but were not yet sick were given no assurance of payments, but were allowed to sue later if they did become ill.

The federal appeals court in Philadelphia, however, threw out the deal in May, saying the case could not proceed as a class action because the plaintiffs' interests were too diverse and too many conflicting legal issues were involved. "More than a case, this is a saga," the court said.

That case is the broader of the two the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to review. The other involves a celebrated dispute involving the so-called "snowmen of Grand Central Terminal," but it, too, has implications for exposure cases in other industries.

The "snowmen" are workers who repaired pipes in the miles of steam tunnels under New York City's major railroad station, and emerged at the end of the day white with dust from asbestos insulation that they had torn off to do repairs.

They have not yet become ill from exposure, but were allowed to sue over their fear of getting sick or dying.

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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