'We've settled 10 of the cases," the plaintiff's lawyer said,
"so only one needs a trial."
Not bad, the judge thought. In fact, very good. The 11-case
docket contained nothing but asbestos litigation, each case a
distressing tale of lung disorder induced by inhaling asbestos
fibers years before, and part of a flood that threatened to swamp
many state - and federal - court systems.
No one really knows the total number of cases. Indeed, the
inability to obtain an accurate count has hampered efforts to
coordinate nationwide management efforts.
At the moment, the judge estimated, the figure exceeded 60,000,
of which the 800 in his state had been assigned specifically to
him. This was a small fraction of the national total: His
counterpart in Los Angeles struggled with 5,000 individual suits.
Nonetheless, these 800 cases, combined with the nonasbestos matters
on his docket, loomed as a nightmare of judicial administration.
With so many claims to adjudicate, the one-at-a-time,
first-come-first-served method of trial would never work. The
average asbestos trial took about three days. With about 20 new
cases coming in every month, if each one went to trial the court
would fall further and further behind its entire workload,
including nonasbestos lawsuits.
The effects of asbestos take years to appear. A typical
plaintiff had been exposed while working as a youngster in a
shipyard during World War II, had gone on to some other occupation
or retired, and had developed symptoms only recently. Others had
been working all along in jobs that required handling asbestos but
had remained healthy until only a few years earlier.
Whatever the history, the plaintiffs tended to be older citizens
- or their survivors, generally widows. For judges, the pressure
mounted to do something for them promptly.
A political fact added to the urgency. Many plaintiffs had first
learned of the condition as a result of X-ray screenings sponsored
by concerned labor unions. Legislators, responding to union
inquiries, began to press the courts to deal with asbestos
litigation more efficiently.
Moreover, asbestos business tended to concentrate in the hands
of very few lawyers. This produced great financial rewards - the
principal owner of the Baltimore Orioles, for example, is perhaps
the country's most successful counsel for asbestos plaintiffs. Yet
concentration meant that even if the courts could accommodate the
crush, no lawyer could service all his or her clients. …