LawyersandSettlements (LAS): How long does a client have to wait before his or her case comes to trial?
"Most of our asbestos experts say that one single fiber can cause mesothelioma"Robert Rowland (RR): Typically, here in Madison County, living mesothelioma victims are able to obtain a trial date within six months of getting their basic information filed with the court. I don't know of any jurisdiction where a victim can get their day in court sooner. We have set about 95 cases for trial per year over the last two years.
LAS: Is settling more advantageous for the client rather than going to trial?
RR: In a lot of ways, it is. It allows us to get money to our clients and their families sooner and help ease the financial burden caused by this devastating disease.
LAS: Who is your typical client?
RR: Many of our clients are members of labor unions in various types of work such as refineries, power plants and steel mills; they built big department stores, grade schools, highways and bridges—all typical examples of people who have asbestos-related disease. Most of our clients are men over 60 years old. We also have represented women—wives and daughters—whose only connection to asbestos was washing their husband or father's clothes. We bring a measure of hope to our clients, even those diagnosed with mesothelioma. We are able to take care of their families and relieve that pressure while they are battling the disease.
I recently got a call from a family and immediately went to the hospital. I talked with and asked questions to a man wearing an oxygen mask because he probably wasn't going to live through the night. He died that night and there is ongoing litigation on behalf of his family.
LAS: Many victims believe there is no hope of litigation if the company they worked for is no longer operational or bankrupt.
RR: That's a misconception. We tell our clients not to assume anything; let us work on the case because a lot of people don't realize the scope of asbestos-containing products. For example, drywall joint compound contains asbestos, so we would go after the manufacturer. Many different exposures could contribute to asbestosis. Most of our asbestos experts say that one single fiber can cause mesothelioma.
In regard to bankrupt companies, bankruptcy trusts have been set up to partially compensate people. Unfortunately, they only pay pennies on the dollar, which is why we go after asbestos exposure throughout a victim's lifetime.
LAS: At what stage of the disease should someone file a claim?
RR: Every state has a statute of limitations that creates a deadline to file a lawsuit. For instance, here in Illinois, we have a two-year statute of limitations, and the discovery rule means that your time to bring a lawsuit starts when you have an injury and when you know, or should have known, that is was wrongfully caused.
In the past, clients would come to us after a loved one died and the death certificate read, "Cause of death was mesothelioma or lung cancer." They only knew it was cancer, but when you have mesothelioma you go downhill so fast; it is a cancer that is unique because it has only one known cause: asbestos.
LAS: What is the next step, after a loved one has died from cancer, for a family member to determine whether they have a claim?
RR: A family member should get in touch with a lawyer if they suspect cancer fatality was related to asbestos exposure. The attorney will then contact a pathologist to review a biopsy of the decedent's lung tissue in order to make a diagnosis that the death was essentially caused by asbestos exposure.
Without the lung tissue or cytology (which is fluid drawn from the lungs), it is very difficult to make a post-mortem diagnosis of mesothelioma. If someone is diagnosed with lung cancer, however, it is possible—with a B Reader x-ray—to determine whether a person had underlying asbestosis. And typically if you have lung cancer combined with underlying asbestosis, that is compensable.
LAS: Is it easier for the plaintiff to reach a settlement now, with more asbestos awareness, than in the past few decades?
RR: OHSA [Occupational Health and Safety Administration] came out with asbestos exposure guidelines in 1972, which put the industry on notice; the first lawsuits came soon afterward. Of course, companies in the asbestos industry knew about the dangers of asbestos exposure back in the 1930's and before. Next, asbestos was banned in home construction by the Consumer Products Safety Commission in the late 1970's. As government regulation increased, it raised public awareness of asbestos dangers and lawsuits followed.
Nationally, the courts are more in favor of plaintiffs, but defendants have fought the whole way—it is an ongoing battle. Now defendants use the excuse that bankrupt companies had a more dangerous product than the current company and therefore the fault lies with the bankrupt company. Their primary defense is, "The danger created by my product is insignificant." They say their product is minor—based on the type of asbestos fiber—compared to others so they should be able to walk away scot-free. That is called the Chrysotile Defense. [Chrysotile is a mineral and a known human carcinogen. As with other forms of asbestos, exposure to chrysotile can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.]
LAS: What happens when a defendant appeals, and what is the general timeframe?
RR: If a jury finds in favor of the plaintiff at trial and the defendant appeals, the case is transferred to an appellate court. The appeals process can take years. Typically, each case involves 20-30 defendants and most defendants settle prior to the trial date.
LAS: Is asbestos a mass tort?
RR: A mass tort technically means an incident of widespread exposure and disease and a demonstrable level of causation between exposure and disease. Think Vioxx and previous large drug cases—they were mass torts. In many ways, asbestos was likely the first mass tort.
LAS: What makes prosecution of mesothelioma cases so difficult?
READ MORE ASBESTOS MESOTHELIOMA LEGAL NEWS
The first asbestos exposure mesothelioma case was filed in 1929, making asbestos lawsuits the longest running mass tort in US history. Since that time, more than 600,000 people have filed lawsuits against 6,000 defendants after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis or other asbestos-related diseases.
Robert Rowland and Goldenberg Heller Antognoli & Rowland, PC have produced extraordinary results in excess of half a billion dollars for their asbestos clients through litigation, settlement and trial. The firm is the most experienced asbestos litigation firm in the metropolitan St. Louis area.