29 Apr 2002 Legal Brief: Asbestos Lawsuits: Putting the Greed of the Healthy over the Needs of the Sick; On the Lighter Side: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie; Go to McDonalds Next Time
Desperately ill patients, many with cancer, increasingly are being shoved aside by “a huge and growing number of relatively healthy people seeking awards for possible future illnesses.”
Asbestos claims this year are up 54 percent. Since January 2000, the wave of claims by healthy plaintiffs has pushed at least 20 companies that once sold or used asbestos products into bankruptcy protection.
The latest wave of asbestos cases has the potential to do far more damage to America’s economy than lawsuits related to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the collapse of Enron combined.
With 50,000 new claims filed by personal injury lawyers in each of the last three years, Wall Street analysts now estimate a total potential payout of more than $200 billion. That money they say eventually will be divided among 2.5 million plaintiffs and a handful of lawyers.
Asbestos, it should be noted, was once considered an industrial godsend. Because certain varieties do not burn, conduct heat or electricity and are resistant to chemicals, they were widely used for making fireproof materials, electrical insulation, roofing and a number of filtering devices.
A study last year by the RAND Corporation found more than 1,000 companies have been sued, and projects that more than half of all U.S. industries will wind up in asbestos courtrooms if lawsuits continue to be filed at their current rates.
Damage awards to healthy persons appear to be excessive and inarguably are reducing the pool of funds available to those who are sick. A prime example was a $150-million verdict returned by a rural jury in Lexington, Mississippi last October. The money was divided among six plaintiffs and, of course, their lawyers. None of the six workers had ever been in asbestos manufacturing or even distributed it. They only handled products containing asbestos occasionally in jobs as laborers, janitors, maintenance men or plant workers.
The butcher telephoned the lawyer and said, “If your dog stole a roast from my butcher shop, would you be liable for the cost of the meat?”
“Of course,” said the lawyer. “How much was the roast?”
A few days later, the butcher received a check for $7.98. Attached was an invoice: Legal Consultations: $100.
The Associated Press reports that Meredith Berkman is suing the company for $50 million because its error caused her “weight gain… mental anguish, outrage and indignation.”
That comes to a whopping 1.8 million dollars per extra calorie, or, if Berkman ate the snack daily for a year, $136,986 per snack.
Given the extent to which excessive lawsuits raise consumer prices, where do we go to sue for “indignation”?