In 2017 alone, more than 4,000 asbestos lawsuits were filed in the U.S., according to a KCIC industry report. Combining all those lawsuits into a single class action would not be good for the people filing them, because each asbestos-exposure case is so unique.
What Is a Class Action Lawsuit?
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. Most agree that the group must share similar injuries caused by shared circumstances that raise the same legal issues.
The court must determine that there are sufficient similarities and that separate lawsuits would be impractical or burdensome. Then it will certify the group as a class and allow them to litigate their case collectively.
Class action lawsuits involving mesothelioma and asbestos began surfacing in the late 1960s. At the time, the public had just become aware of the serious health hazards of asbestos exposure. Since then, judges have resorted to a number of procedural methods to manage asbestos claims that now number in the millions.
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History of Mesothelioma and Asbestos Class Actions
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 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.
Georgine v. Amchem Inc.
The presiding judge was expected to facilitate a global settlement between the major asbestos defendants and plaintiffs’ attorneys. That effort failed. A group of 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.
Under the proposal in Amchem, 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. The court ruled 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.
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 ruled against certifying an asbestos class action. State courts have generally been more willing to certify class actions than federal courts. Still, asbestos class actions are not common.
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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 mesothelioma attorney to advise you on your individual circumstances and legal options.
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. But it is 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 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 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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Last Modified January 17, 2019
5 Cited Article Sources
KCIC. (2018). ASBESTOS LITIGATION: 2017 YEAR IN REVIEW.
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Justia. (1997). Georgine v. Amchem Prods., Inc.
Retrieved from: https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/878/716/1439885/
Hanlon, P.M. & Smetak, A.M. (2007). Asbestos Changes.
Retrieved from: http://www.law.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/ecm_pro_064613.pdf
- Solomon, R.A. (1991). Clearing the Air: Resolving the Asbestos Personal Injury Litigation Crisis. Retrieved from: https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1328&context=elr