New York is often called the birthplace of the asbestos manufacturing industry. In 1858, a predecessor of the Johns Manville Corporation began using anthophyllite mined in Staten Island to manufacture asbestos insulation. Over the next century, asbestos use spread to a variety of industrial applications in New York and beyond. Now that the health hazards of these materials are well-known, New York has enacted a number of laws and regulations to promote safe handling and removal of materials containing asbestos.
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Many asbestos lawsuits are filed in New York courts. The distinction is hardly surprising given high incidents of asbestos exposure in the state. For many decades, asbestos was widely used in construction projects and on other New York job sites, including oil refineries, power plants and shipyards. As a result this widespread industrial use, many thousands of New York workers were exposed to asbestos.
During World War II, as many as 70,000 workers may have been exposed to asbestos at the Brooklyn Navy Yard alone. Because of the long latency periods, many of these and other exposed workers will likely develop asbestos-related illnesses for years to come. Continued exposure to asbestos in commercial and residential buildings as well as exposure to tons of asbestos at the World Trade Center site following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also could contribute to future asbestos-related illnesses.
In the late 1980s, New York amended its statute of limitations to grant a one-year grace period for filing certain asbestos claims. The measure allowed thousands of claimants to file cases that had previously expired under the statute of limitations. By 2000, 12 percent of all state court asbestos filings were made in New York.
Courts in New York City and Syracuse, New York, have established "inactive dockets" for asbestos cases. These courts place cases of claimants who allege asbestos exposure, but are currently unimpaired, on a separate inactive docket. Discovery and processing of such cases is delayed until the plaintiff's injuries have progressed.
These courts also adopt procedural rules and issue case management orders to address a backlog of cases. For instance, under "first in, first out" procedures, claims of terminally ill claimants are set aside for accelerated trials during one month, twice a year. These case management orders also include procedures for "clustering" groups of similar cases for trial and discovery. For example, multiple cases handled by a single law firm may be clustered into a group.
Although New York courts have made efforts to streamline the processing of asbestos cases and promote quicker resolution, asbestos lawsuits reach varied outcomes. For instance, hundreds of Brooklyn Navy Yard cases have settled. Others have gone to trial. In 2004, a New York jury awarded a total of $22 million to a former electrician and the estate of a former seaman who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Four years later another New York jury awarded $2.25 million to the family of another former electrician at the Navy Yard who developed mesothelioma. Not all cases have resulted in favorable verdicts for asbestos claimants.
New York law allows the award of punitive damages in personal injury cases. Punitive damage awards are generally used to discourage defendants from performing similar conduct in the future. An award of punitive damages can sometimes result in a very large total case verdict. In New York City, however, the judge who managed all asbestos litigation filed in the city between 1987 and 2008 "deferred" all punitive damages awards indefinitely. Her case management order effectively dismissed all punitive damages claims in her caseload. The case management order was limited to New York City asbestos cases and can be revised by future asbestos case managers.
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