Legislation & Litigation

Philadelphia Court Acts to Reduce Asbestos Caseload

Written By:
Feb 24, 2012
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Written By: Karen Marshall,
February 24, 2012

Recently, a Pennsylvania federal court announced it reduced the backlog of federal asbestos cases.

But a Pennsylvania state court has different news. Because of its backlog, the Philadelphia court system has issued new rules to manage asbestos cases.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas currently has a caseload of 770 asbestos lawsuits. That’s up from 589 cases in 2006. The court was under pressure to keep up with the American Bar Association’s (ABA) suggested goal of resolving 42 percent of asbestos cases within two years of filing.

Philadelphia’s case resolution rate hasn’t kept up with this standard. It typically disposes of asbestos cases within three years or more.

Last week, the court announced measures to increase its disposition rate and lower the backlog of cases. Some of these changes may help asbestos claimants resolve their cases more quickly. But not all of the changes are good news.

Court Sets Case Consolidation Requirements

One of the changes includes how cases are grouped for trial. Consolidating similar cases is a way to schedule trials faster. Until now, the court gave parties some flexibility in proposing case management plans, including trial groupings. Now, the court limits consolidation to eight to 10 cases per trial group.

Trial dates will not be set until a group has at least eight cases. Of these, only three cases may ultimately go to trial. The remaining cases must either settle or be regrouped and re-listed for trial at a later date.

The court also set criteria that attorneys must follow when proposing trial groups, including:

  • Same law – Cases involving laws of different states may not be grouped together.
  • Same disease – All cases in a group must be in the same disease category. The categories are: non-malignant cases, mesothelioma, lung cancer and other cancers. Non-pleural mesothelioma cases may not be tried with pleural mesothelioma cases. Non-pleural mesothelioma claims are further separated by occupational exposure and “bystander” exposure.
  • Same plaintiff’s lawyers – All cases in a group must have the same lead trial lawyers.
  • Special Mediation Panel – Both sides are encouraged to seek mediation from a panel of five former judges.

Reforms Aren’t Necessarily Good News for Some Plaintiffs

It’s easy to see how faster case resolution can benefit asbestos plaintiffs. Asbestos diseases are very aggressive. Treating them exhausts money and other resources in no time. The quicker asbestos claimants can resolve their claims, the better. That way, they can focus on their health instead of financial burdens.

But some plaintiffs will not necessarily view Philadelphia’s changes as good news:

  • Expedited Cases – The Philadelphia court’s new rules prohibit expediting cases with extreme medical or financial circumstances. Some courts place plaintiffs with urgent needs on a fast-track by expediting trials for a limited number each year. The Philadelphia court will consider changing its rule once it starts resolving 80% of asbestos cases within two years.  Until then, there’s no expediting unless most defendants agree.
  • Out-of-State Parties – Out-of-state attorneys are limited to two trials a year. In the past, Philadelphia welcomed out-of-state filings. But now the court “cautions” out-of-state plaintiffs to file elsewhere until it fixes the backlog of cases.
  • Punitive Damages – Philadelphia will also defer punitive damages claims in “all mass tort cases.” There is a concern that large punitive damages awards limit a defendant’s ability to pay future claims. Several years ago, Philadelphia adopted a practice of postponing punitive awards in asbestos cases for at least a year. The new rule makes sure deferral will continue.

You’ve probably noticed that the rules focus more plaintiffs than defendants.  Well, they do.

Many of the changes are similar reforms pushed by groups like the American Tort Reform Foundation. They want to limit the number of lawsuits and pro-plaintiff verdicts involving widespread injuries like asbestos injuries. In fact, ATRF named Philadelphia a No. 1 Judicial Hellhole (that is, for defendants).

Still, the City of Brotherly Love has stopped short of becoming a judicial hellhole for plaintiffs. It may reverse the rules after it reduces the backlog.

It also welcomes suggestions for improving the rules.

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