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W. Va. Asbestos Claims Go To Trial

Sep 24, 2002 | AP

Thousands of asbestos claims against two dozen corporations went to trial Tuesday in a potentially multimillion-dollar case that has renewed criticism of trial lawyers and brought demands for legal reform.

Jury selection began Tuesday in state court.

The case originally pitted nearly 8,000 claimants against more than 250 corporations that either made asbestos products or used them.

But settlement talks on Monday cut the number of defendants to 16 manufacturers, including Mobil Corp., Owens-Illinois and Westinghouse, and one company that used asbestos, Union Carbide. And about 5,000 plaintiffs were left after many reached confidential settlements.

Asbestos was widely used for fireproofing and insulation by railroads, steelmakers and other heavy industries until the 1970s, when it became widely known that asbestos fibers cause cancer and other lung problems.

Asbestos makers and business groups have accused trial lawyers of piling on the industry and trying to get rich by filing claims on behalf of people not yet sick, targeting companies not directly involved in the asbestos industry and shopping around for state courts where they think they can win the biggest verdicts.

In Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on asbestos lawsuits. Defense lawyers are seeking federal laws targeting what they consider abuses in the asbestos litigation process.

Critics of asbestos lawsuits blame such claims for the bankruptcy filings of more than 50 U.S. corporations, with 14 filing since 2000.

The dispute has taken on a political case, with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reporting that Republicans and business lobbyists have joined forces "to take direct aim at one of the Democratic Party's biggest benefactors trial lawyers."

Trial lawyers have accused the asbestos defendants of trying to deflect blame.

"The companies and the insurers created all this because they didn't do anything years and years ago to fix this mess," said John Skaggs, a Charleston lawyer whose firm represents more than 600 claimants in the asbestos case. "They shouldn't be mad at us, they should be mad at the executives who got them into this business."

A number of the law firms that are now suing the tobacco industry honed their tactics in asbestos cases.

Critics of asbestos litigation have called for stricter standards of evidence for what constitutes exposure and impairment, and allow for independent medical experts to screen plaintiffs before their cases reach a jury. They also want laws to stifle "forum shopping" by trial lawyers.

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