Authorities expose lawyers manipulating asbestos claims cases as a financial scam
Referring to lawyers who scam asbestos claims, Lisa Rickard, President of Institute for Legal Reform is to the point. Rickard claims that mass torts are “easy to manipulate” particularly for those who control them. The long history of litigations related to asbestos exposure where law firms have manipulated evidence to their own advantage support that sentiment.
People diagnosed with mesothelioma resulting from asbestos exposure have fought legal battles and won millions of dollars. But the real beneficiaries have not always been the victims themselves.
The link between asbestos and mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is a very rare cancer that affects the mesothelium. This is the specific layer of cells that line and protect organs such as lungs and abdomen. The layer acts as a lubricant that allows for smooth expansion and contraction of the lungs.
Doctors diagnose about 3000 new cases of mesothelioma each year according to the American Cancer Society. Prolonged, heavy exposure to asbestos – a group of minerals found in rocks and soil across the world- is the major risk factor for this cancer.
The mineral is in the form of tiny fibers which, when inhaled or ingested, can damage the lining of the cells. It takes between twenty to fifty years for symptoms to show up after exposure to asbestos.
Large-scale mining for asbestos started in the nineteenth century.
More than 52 countries across the world phased out or banned asbestos following concerns of illnesses such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most products that contain asbestos in 1989. The EPA also has a list of regulations and laws that relate to asbestos-use and safe handling. Consequently, the rates of mesothelioma have gone down since the 1990s in the U.S.
Although regulations minimize the use of asbestos, many old buildings and insulations still contain the mineral. And since symptoms of mesothelioma develop years later, asbestos litigations have been one of the most expensive and widely contested lawsuits in the U.S. history.
Since the 1980s, companies have paid up more than $30 billion in compensation. Asbestos litigations have also resulted in bankruptcy for more than one hundred companies, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Shockingly, solicitors, and not the victims, have been the primary beneficiaries in many litigations fought in the U.K. A case in point is the decade-old litigation in which the miners received £1,000 or less in compensation while the solicitors pocketed more than £115 million.
In this case, the Supreme Court declared that asbestos exposure caused all of the mesothelioma cases. However, the court did not distinguish between the different types of asbestos. According to experts, the blue and brown forms of asbestos are cancer-causing while white asbestos is not.
The watershed moment
Garlock’s filing for bankruptcy in 2010 heralded the “watershed moment” in the history of asbestos litigations. The gasket manufacturer had paid more than a billion over a period of 35 years in multiple lawsuits related to asbestos exposures. After exhausting the insurance coverage in 2010, Garlock owed $1.25 billion to plaintiffs.
The company contended that it had overpaid compensation over the years because the plaintiff’s law firms manipulated evidence related to asbestos exposure. The lawyers appointed by Garlock requested court’s permission to investigate fifteen other cases that involved manipulation of evidence.
The judge ruled that the plaintiffs’ attorneys “withheld evidence” related to asbestos exposure of their clients from other companies. Consequently, this had unfairly boosted the settlement amount.
Furthermore, many asbestos victims had experienced exposure to multiple asbestos products from different companies. Lawyers had hidden this evidence to make Garlock look worse.
Stating that “lawyers had infected the tort system” by manipulating evidence, the judge reduced the compensation to 90% of the original claim of $1.2 billion. In March 2016, Garlock paid up $480 in a settlement with the plaintiffs.
The case of Crane
John Crane Inc, a gasket manufacturer, is the latest company to join Garlock’s fight against the asbestos claim racket. The firm has asked the judge to allow an investigation into the plaintiffs’ law firms Simon Greenstone and Shein Law Center.
Plaintiff David Keleman sued and won $30 million from Crane in 2008 when his lawyers claimed that he only worked with products of non-bankrupt companies. While the lawyers filed six claims with bankruptcy trusts that made amphibole insulation or asbestos-containing brake pads, Keleman denied ever having handled these products.
Crane was able to win the case in 2014 when the company highlighted a case where a plaintiff under oath claimed exposure only to products made by Crane and not Garlock. But weeks later, the plaintiff signed an affidavit saying that he had personally handled products made by Garlock.
Plaintiff lawyers counter accused Crane of engaging in manipulation of facts to avoid paying “the right compensation.” However, the fact remains that law firms have engaged in fraudulent torts in the past.
More evidence of fraudulent claims
Additionally, there have been many past instances where companies proven the manipulation in which lawyers have indulged. In 2012, CSX won the case against attorneys and radiologist Ray Harron after proving they manipulated medical evidence in thousands of fraudulent asbestos claims.
Likewise, Drummond Industries won their case against a labor rights lawyer. The company discovered proof that witnesses received thousands of dollars to testify against the company.
More recently, former New York Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, was arrested. Allegedly, he had been routing patients referred by a cancer doctor to a law firm that specializes in asbestos litigations.
Meanwhile, legislators debate about bringing in more transparency and fairness in asbestos litigations. However, it might take more than mere legislation to put a stop to fraudulent tactics.