Class Action Lawsuits

Class action lawsuits are filed by a single or multiple claimants representing a much larger group of people alleging the same complaint. Mesothelioma patients and their loved ones rarely file these. Instead, they hire an individual attorney to focus solely on their case.

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Class action lawsuits involving mesothelioma and asbestos began surfacing in the late 1960s after the public became aware of the serious health hazards associated with asbestos exposure. Since, judges have resorted to a number of procedural methods to manage asbestos claims that now number in the millions. In the American judicial system, class action lawsuits long have been a way to resolve disagreements involving similar claimants with similar injuries and defendants. Compared to other mass torts, however, class actions have not been widely used in asbestos cases.

A class action lawsuit is a claim in which a group of people collectively bring a complaint to court. These types of lawsuits are filed against a defendant by one or more plaintiffs on behalf of a group of “similarly situated” people. State and federal courts have their own procedural rules governing class actions. Generally, in order to maintain a class action lawsuit, the group must share similar injuries caused by shared circumstances that raise the same legal issues. If the court determines that there are sufficient similarities and that separate lawsuits would be impractical or burdensome, it will certify the group as a class and allow them to litigate their case collectively.

Mesothelioma class actions typically are filed against companies that knew the dangers of asbestos exposure but did not inform employees of the risks. Manufacturers and distributors of asbestos-containing products, mining and construction companies and shipbuilders are often named as defendants in these types of class actions.

History of Mesothelioma and Asbestos Class Actions

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

About 20 years after the first mesothelioma and asbestos class action lawsuits were filed, the number of cases grew to about 20,000. As awareness about asbestos-related diseases increased and doctors diagnosed more people with mesothelioma, the number of claims escalated to 750,000 in another 20 years. Judges were aware of the overwhelming number of claims and the difficulty of managing so many. In 1991, federal asbestos cases were consolidated in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for pretrial purposes. Multidistrict asbestos litigation continues to be heard in this court, and is known as MDL 875.

Amchem Prods., Inc.

Georgine v. Amchem Inc.

Shortly after the cases were transferred to the MDL, many expected the presiding judge would facilitate a global settlement between the major asbestos defendants and plaintiffs' attorneys. When this effort failed, a group asbestos manufacturers and major plaintiff's firms attempted to negotiate a settlement agreement. Not intending to go to trial, the parties filed a complaint, answer, joint motion to certify a class and a proposed settlement agreement for Georgine v. Amchem Prods., Inc.

U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court

Under the proposed Amchem case, the parties would seek to create a class solely for settlement purposes. Claims of unimpaired plaintiffs would be deferred and a payment matrix would be applied to other claims, including future asbestos claims. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled against class certification, holding that it was inappropriate because the class of claimants was too large and had too many varied interests. In addition, common questions of law and fact did not predominate within the proposed class.

Fibreboard Corp.

Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp.

Since Amchem, federal courts have not favored asbestos class actions. In Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp., 527 U.S. 815 (1999), the Supreme Court again ruled against certifying an asbestos class action. Although state courts have generally been more willing to certify class actions than federal courts, asbestos class actions are not as common as class actions for other types of torts.

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Deciding Whether to Participate in a Class Action

If you are asked to join an asbestos class action, remember that you can choose to join the class or "opt out" so that you can pursue your own lawsuit. You should consider hiring a attorney specialized in mesothelioma cases to advise you on your individual circumstances and legal options.

Out-of-Court Settlements

An out-of-court settlement is likely when a large group of claimants is involved. Any settlement is divided among thousands of claimants. This may be attractive to patients who wish to avoid a trial. It is, however, difficult to get several plaintiffs and defendants to reach agreement on legal issues. If the parties manage to reach an agreement on a class action settlement, the court must still approve the settlement terms.

Difficulties with Large Plaintiff Numbers

Class action members generally have less control over their cases than claimants who file separate lawsuits. Lawyers who handle class actions represent the interests of a large number of plaintiffs. Attorneys for individual lawsuits, however, can focus more closely on their client's individual issues. Many asbestos claimants prefer to have more control over their cases and opt not to join class actions.

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Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His specialty is interviewing top mesothelioma specialists and researchers, reporting the latest news at mesothelioma cancer centers and talking with survivors and caregivers.

  1. Edited version of transcript of Professor Michelle J. White’s speech before the Manhattan Institute on September 14, 2005.
  2. Georgine v. Amchem Prods., Inc., 157 F.R.D. 246 (E.D. Pa. 1994); Amchem Prods., Inc., v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591 (1997).
  3. Hanlon, Patrick M. & Smetak, Anne M., Asbestos Changes, 62 N.Y.U. Ann. Surv. Am. L. 526 (2007).
  4. In re Asbestos Prods. Liab. Litig.(No. VI), 771 F. Supp. 415 (J.P.M.L.1991).
  6. Solomon, Richard A., Comment, Clearing the Air: Resolving the Asbestos Personal Injury Litigation Crisis, 2 FORDHAM ENVIRONMENTAL L. REV. 125 (Summer 1991). 

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