Reading Time: 11 mins
Last Edited On: 02/23/2024

Written by Joe Lahav, EsquireEdited By Walter PachecoLegally Reviewed By William A. Davis

Understanding Liability in Asbestos Cases

Asbestos liability means a company is legally responsible for injuries resulting from asbestos exposure. If a court finds a company liable for asbestos-related injuries, the injured party may be able to recover damages.

Thousands of people receive diagnoses of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases each year. Yet, asbestos injuries are absolutely preventable. For this reason, it’s often possible to hold those who exposed people to asbestos liable for the harm they caused.

99%

Percentage of asbestos lawsuits that consistently include some level of occupational exposure.

Source: KCIC’s 2023 Industry Report, Asbestos Litigation: 2022 Year in Review

The overwhelming majority of asbestos cases stem from occupational exposure. People also encounter the toxic mineral in secondhand exposure or contaminated consumer products such as talcum powder. 

According to a 2023 KCIC industry report, lawsuits claiming purely non-occupational asbestos exposure have consistently accounted for about 1% of case filings. Experienced mesothelioma attorneys can help you determine who is liable for your injuries and file a claim for compensation. 

How Is Asbestos Liability Determined?

Typically, asbestos lawsuits proceed on one of three legal theories: Negligence, strict liability and/or breach of warranty. Each state has its own liability laws. 

A plaintiff generally must prove the defendant is liable or persuade the defendant to settle because there is good evidence of liability. Proving liability for mesothelioma and other diseases with long latency periods is more challenging than other work-related injuries.

In these types of lawsuits, specifically mesothelioma lawsuits, you don’t typically file against your employer. You file against the companies that manufactured the asbestos-containing products.

The long latency period between initial asbestos exposure and the development of mesothelioma can take up to 60 years. Proving exposure that happened several decades ago is more challenging than proving recent work-related injuries. That’s why it’s a good idea to consult an experienced mesothelioma law firm about your case.

Negligence

Negligence is the failure to provide care or take action that a reasonable person would. In most cases, to prevail in a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must prove 4 points.

4 Elements of Negligence
  • The defendant had a legal duty to the plaintiff.
  • The defendant’s conduct violated that duty.
  • The defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury, i.e. causation.
  • The injury resulted in damage to the plaintiff.

Causation is often the most challenging of the four negligence elements to prove. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove their exposure to an asbestos product was a substantial factor in causing their disease. Proof of medical probability often presented in court includes frequency of asbestos exposure, duration of exposure and proximity to the product.

Strict Liability

In some instances, if it’s difficult to prove a defendant was negligent, a plaintiff can instead rely on a theory of strict liability. A strict liability claim usually  requires similar proof of the 4 elements of negligence claims, but it differs in 2 ways.

Under strict liability, the plaintiff doesn’t need to prove that the defendant acted negligently to recover damages. The fact that the material was inherently dangerous is enough to establish that the defendant breached their duty.

Additionally, legal duty to a plaintiff exists if the defendant isn’t just a casual seller but a commercial supplier. This would include companies that manufacture or sell the asbestos product.

Breach of Warranty

Companies can be liable for breaching either an implied or express warranty on an asbestos product. Implied warranties essentially ensure a product is safe for its intended purpose. For example, asbestos product manufacturers can be liable for manufacturing products that weren’t safe and caused people to develop cancer, thus breaching an implied warranty of safety. 

Liability for breach of an express warranty occurs when a maker or seller of an asbestos product made a claim that caused someone to buy or use the product, and that claim turned out to be false. For example, if an asbestos manufacturer or seller claims that an asbestos product is safe, but it turns out to be harmful, the manufacturer or seller may be liable to someone who relied on the claim and was injured.

Who Is Liable for Asbestos Exposure?

Determining who is liable for asbestos exposure can be complicated. For veterans, for example, the military itself wouldn’t be sued, but the companies that supplied asbestos products to the military could be.

In addition to receiving compensation from asbestos litigation, mesothelioma compensation may be available to veterans through the VA benefits system. VA-accredited claims agents can help veterans access benefits available to them.

You wouldn’t sue the government or the armed forces. Rather, the lawsuits filed would be against the manufacturers, distributors and installers of the asbestos-containing materials.

There is usually more than one defendant in an asbestos exposure lawsuit. Any number of these defendants may be found liable. Each state has different laws on how to divide responsibility among multiple defendants. A mesothelioma attorney can identify the defendants, gather evidence and present the case against each defendant.

Defendants can include manufacturers, distributors and installers of asbestos products, mining companies and employers who used asbestos. Owners of asbestos-contaminated properties can also be named as defendants.

Mining Companies

There were active asbestos mines in many of the 35 states where the mineral occurred naturally. The last U.S. asbestos mine closed in 2002. 

Mining companies that failed to take proper safety precautions and warn workers and the public about asbestos risks can be liable for resulting injuries. Airborne asbestos particles placed miners and nearby residents at high risk. 

Miners and residents in Libby, Montana, for example, sued mine operator W.R. Grace for their asbestos injuries. The company’s asbestos liabilities forced it to create an asbestos trust fund. Many residents also successfully sued the state of Montana for failing to warn the public. 

Asbestos Product Manufacturers

Asbestos manufacturers made a wide range of asbestos products for industrial, commercial and consumer use. Although asbestos manufacturers often knew about the health hazards, they failed to adequately warn workers and the public. 

U.S. courts have found asbestos manufacturers had a duty to properly warn the public about asbestos dangers. In 1973, courts awarded the first victory to a case filed against 11 asbestos manufacturers.

Asbestos Distributors and Installers

Courts have found companies that supplied or installed asbestos-containing materials liable. These lawsuits may involve negligence claims because of inadequate safety protocols, failure to provide proper training and lack of protective equipment. Failure to provide proper warnings about asbestos during the distribution and installation of products can lead to asbestos liability.

Employers

Employers must establish safe work conditions, warn their employees about asbestos dangers and provide proper safety training or face liability. The law recognizes a duty to keep employees safe. Even local governments may face lawsuits for failing to properly oversee asbestos removal or containment in municipal buildings.

Unfortunately, the threat of liability doesn’t always persuade employers to take proper safety measures. In recent years, a number of asbestos abatement workers have developed serious illnesses because their employers cut corners. These employers are sometimes subject to lawsuits and jail time.

2023 U.S. Geological Survey report shows global consumption of asbestos fluctuated from 1.1 to 1.3 million tons each year between 2015 and 2021. Today, the chlor-alkali industry is the primary employer using asbestos imported into the U.S. They use asbestos diaphragms in their production processes, which places workers at risk of exposure. 

Owners of Asbestos-Contaminated Properties

The extent of liability differs in each state, but property owners are generally expected to keep their premises safe and protect the public from asbestos dangers. This requires owners to use properly certified asbestos abatement companies when necessary.

A company doesn’t have to be your employer to be responsible for your asbestos-related injuries. For instance, a contractor who is injured from asbestos exposure at an off-site location may have a legal claim against the property owner. Municipal buildings, like courthouses and schools, often contain asbestos that can harm non-employees.

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Asbestos Exposure Lawsuits and Compensation

The main ways to seek asbestos liability compensation are lawsuit verdicts, settlements and trust fund claims. Families who have lost loved ones to asbestos-related illnesses may be able to file wrongful death claims for their losses and expenses including funeral costs.

Asbestos-related damages may include lost wages, medical expenses and related expenses such as traveling for treatment. Compensation for pain and suffering is sometimes available as well.

I’m happy I pursued legal representation. I stood for something that I thought was right. And I ended up with some money, a bit of security and college money for my children.

Although it takes a long time for asbestosis or cancer to develop after asbestos exposure, once these illnesses are diagnosed, the physical, emotional and financial costs add up quickly. Most injured Americans rely on legal claims to seek mesothelioma compensation. This is because the United States doesn’t have a centralized asbestos compensation program or universal health care system.

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Mass Torts and Class Action Lawsuits

In the past, courts grouped plaintiffs with similar claims in mesothelioma class-action lawsuits. In a class-action all plaintiffs are represented together and evenly share in any award. 

Multidistrict litigation is when a number of similar cases from around the country are grouped together before one judge in one district. A Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee is appointed to represent all of the different plaintiffs and their law firms. 

Today, most mesothelioma cases are too unique to group together. Individual personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits are filed. Whether plaintiffs file their claims individually or as part of a group, their task is the same: They must convince a jury that the defendant is liable for their injuries.

Asbestos Bankruptcy Trusts

Asbestos companies that use the bankruptcy system must establish asbestos trust funds to compensate future claimants. Also called asbestos compensation trusts, these funds are created to handle the asbestos liabilities of these bankrupt companies.

A qualified mesothelioma attorney can help you determine if a trust claim is an option and how a claim might affect lawsuits against other liable companies.

Commonly Asked Questions About Asbestos Liability

How does asbestos exposure lead to legal liability?

Exposure to asbestos products can lead to legal liability for the product manufacturer when someone develops mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Failure to warn, provide protective gear or follow safety regulations can result in negligence claims against distributors, installers and manufacturers of asbestos-containing products.

What factors determine responsibility in asbestos-related cases?

Factors such as knowledge of asbestos risks, duty of care and adherence to safety regulations determine responsibility in asbestos exposure lawsuits. Liability may fall on manufacturers, distributors, installers, employers or property owners, depending on their roles and actions regarding asbestos handling and disclosure.

Are there time limitations for filing asbestos liability claims?

Time limits for filing asbestos liability claims are called statutes of limitations and they vary from state to state. Generally, they range from 1 to 6 years from the date of diagnosis or death. The most common statue of limitations is 2 years from the time of diagnosis for personal injury lawsuits or death for wrongful death lawsuits.

Can family members sue for asbestos-related illnesses if the affected individual has passed away?

Yes, family members can sue if their loved one has died of an asbestos-related illness. They may file a wrongful death lawsuit seeking compensation for funeral costs, medical bills, loss of income and other expenses.

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