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Litigation -vs- Asbestosis / Mesothelioma

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Asbestos by the Numbers:

The impact of what Supreme Court Justice David Souter terms the "elephantine mass" of asbestos litigation is vast and far-reaching. Nearly forty years have passed since the first lawsuit was filed, but hundreds of thousands of claims are still pending and new claims are accelerating, especially by those who are not sick. The flood of claims and resulting settlements are forcing companies into bankruptcy and putting at risk compensation for those who are sick today or may become sick in the future. The "elephantine mass {is} still growing" (Chicago Tribune, July 22, 2001) and there is no end in sight.  The diseases caused by asbestos include asbestosis, mesothelioma, as well as malignant mesothelioma.

Number of Claims

An estimated 200,000 asbestos claims are pending in state and Federal courts across the country. The total number of claims filed from the onset of asbestos litigation exceeds 730,000 (RAND). Filings have increased dramatically, with more than 90,000 in 2001, compared to 20,000 in the early part of the decade. It is estimated that as many as one to three million claims could be filed before the litigation ends. Who is filing the majority of these claims? "Up to half of asbestos claims are now being filed by people who have little or no physical impairment," said Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. According to a more recent estimate by RAND, non-cancer asbestos claims account for "about 90%" of annual claims.


So far, companies have paid approximately $70 billion in claims and related costs. And claimants are getting only 43 cents of every dollar spent on asbestos litigation. Remaining asbestos liability has been estimated at $145 billion to $210 billion. Milliman projects that the total cost of settlements ultimately could reach $265 billion. The weight of the claims and size of settlements have caused or contributed to the bankruptcies of more than 70 companies. The number of asbestos defendants also has risen sharply, from about 300 in the 1980s, to 8,400 today and most are users of the product, not manufacturers (RAND). These companies span 85% of the U.S. economy and nearly every U.S industry (RAND) and include automakers, shipbuilders, textile mills, retailers, insurers, shipbuilders, electric utilities and virtually any company involved in manufacturing or construction in the last thirty years (Wall Street Journal).


Asbestos leaves many victims in its wake. First and foremost, the sick and their families have suffered. But the flawed asbestos litigation system, which the Wall Street Journal terms "The Asbestos Blob," not only hurts the sick and their chance at receiving fair compensation, but also claims other victims. These include employees, retirees and shareholders of affected companies whose jobs, savings and retirement plans are also jeopardized by the tide of asbestos cases. With asbestos litigation affecting so many companies, this also impacts the overall economy due to the trickle-down effects, including jobs, pensions, stock prices, tax revenues and insurance costs. According to a 2002 study by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, asbestos bankruptcies have cost nearly 60,000 workers their jobs and $200 million in lost wages. Employees' retirement funds have shrunken by 25%.   The many costs to society include:   asbestos lawsuit, asbestos litigation, as well as mesothelioma lawsuit, and mesothelioma litigation.   The diseases caused by asbestos include asbestosis, mesothelioma, as well as malignant mesothelioma.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly called for Congressional action on asbestos. It's time to heed their call and solve this problem before it's too late.

What is Mesothelioma?

Malignant mesothelioma is an uncommon, but no longer rare, cancer that is difficult to diagnose and poorly responsive to therapy. Malignan tmesothelioma is the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases.

A layer of specialized cells called mesothelial cells lines the chest cavity, abdominal cavity, and the cavity around the heart. These cells also cover the outer surface of most internal organs. The tissue formed by these cells is called mesothelium.

The mesothelium helps protect the organs by producing a special lubricating fluid that allows organs to move around. For example, this fluid makes it easier for the lungs to move inside the chest during breathing. The mesothelium of the chest is called the pleura and the mesothelium of the abdomen is known as the peritoneum. The mesothelium of the pericardial cavity (the "sac-like" space around the heart) is called the pericardium.

Tumors of the mesothelium can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). A malignant tumor of the mesothelium is called a malignant mesothelioma. Because most mesothelial tumors are cancerous, malignant mesothelioma is often simply called mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma was recognized as a tumor of the pleura, peritoneum and pericardium in the late 1700's. However it was not until much later, in 1960, that this particular type of tumor was described in more detail and even more importantly, its association with asbestos exposure was recognized. The first report linking mesothelioma to asbestos exposure was written by J.C.Wagner, and described 32 cases of workers in the "Asbestos Hills" in South Africa. Since then, the relationship between mesothelioma and asbestos exposure has been confirmed in studies around the world.

The incidence of mesothelioma in the United States remains very low, with 14 cases occurring per million people per year. Despite these numbers, the noticed threefold increase in mesothelioma in males between 1970 and 1984, is directly associated with environmental and occupational exposure to asbestos, mostly in areas of asbestos product plants and shipbuilding facilities.

Although the disease is much more commonly seen in 60-year-old men, it has been described in women and early childhood as well. The cause of the disease is not so well understood in these latter two groups, but there is some evidence of possible asbestos exposure for some of these cases as well.

Malignant mesothelioma is divided into three main types. About 50% to 70% of mesothelioma occurrences are the epithelioid type. This type has the best prognosis (outlook for survival). The other two types are the sarcomatoid type (7%-20%), and the mixed/biphasic type (20%-35%). Treatment options for all three types are the same.

About three-fourths of mesothelioma occurrences start in the chest cavity and is known as pleural mesothelioma. Another 10% to 20% begin in the abdomen and is called peritoneal mesothelioma. Pericardial  mesothelioma, starting in the cavity around the heart, is very rare. The covering layer of the testicles is actually an outpouching of peritoneum into the scrotum. Mesothelioma that affects this covering of the testicles is quite rare.

What is Asbestosis?

Asbestosis is a lung condition, often referred to as a "diffuse pulmonary fibrosis" which results from the inhalation of asbestos fibers. It is one of a number of diseases categorized as occupational lung disease or environmental lung disease. A unique aspect of asbestosis that distinguishes it from other fibrotic diseases (such as silicosis) is the presence of asbestos bodies and fibers in the lung tissue. Additionally, asbestos bodies and fibers have been detected in small numbers beyond the lung: in tonsils, thoracic and abdominal lymph nodes, pleura, peritoneum, liver, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, small and large intestines, esophagus and stomach.

Typically, asbestos particles are inhaled into the lungs by exposed individuals in large quantities. The body's defense mechanisms respond to asbestos fibers by attacking them, which forms the characteristic fibrosis which can often be detected with an x-ray or CT Scan. Asbestosis is a disease process which is progressive and irreversible in nature. It typically leads to subsequent respiratory disability. In the most severe cases, asbestosis may lead to death from pulmonary hypertension and cardiac failure.

Asbestosis is generally considered to be a restrictive lung disease. The fibrosis which forms reduces the lung's ability to expand and exchange oxygen (distensibility). This "stiff lung" condition reduces all volumes and capacities of the lungs. A person with asbestosis tends to breathe more rapidly as a compensatory reaction to his or her diminished lung capacity.

What are the Clinical Signs of Asbestosis?

Clinical presentation of this disease may include the following:

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
       - rarely occurs before a decade of exposure
       - appears first only upon exertion and subsequently occurs at rest

  • Dry cough
       - dry and troublesome cough, perhaps associated with chest pain

  • X-Ray changes
       - generally beginning with irregular opacities at the bases of the lungs, perhaps extending into the upper zones gradually

  • Pulmonary function deficiencies
       - typically a pulmonary function test reveals a restrictive lung disease pattern
       - there may be a pulmonary function loss before x-ray changes become evident

Other more advanced symptoms of this disease include clubbing of the fingers (increased thickness of the digits and curvature of the nails) and cor pulmonale. Medical monitoring for radiologic changes is key, as persons with asbestosis have an increased risk of developing a malignancy.