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Asbestos Litigation: Malignancy in the Courts?

issue brief

Asbestos Litigation: Malignancy in the Courts?

Lester Brickman August 1, 2002
Legal ReformOther

Professor Lester Brickman teaches at the Yeshiva University Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. His areas of expertise are lawyers' ethics with a focus on lawyers' fees; tort reform, including administrative alternatives to mass tort litigation; and contingency fee reform. He is widely quoted in the press, and his writings have been influential in changing policy with regard to non-refundable retainers and in setting the tone for national debate over tort reform. He has consulted for the US Office of Education, Ford Foundation, National Science Foundation, Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility, American Bar Association, and others.

Roger Parloff is a journalist who has been on the staff of The American Lawyer, Inside, and Brill's Content. His work has also appeared in The New York Times MagazineHarper's, New York, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and People, among others. He recently authored a thorough article on the asbestos issue that appeared in the March 4th issue of Fortune.


While I was preparing for this introduction, I had a disconcerting experience. I learned that essentially every point that I tried to make in my Fortune article had already been made more convincingly, more comprehensively, and more powerfully ten years earlier in an article in the Cardozo Law Review by Professor Lester Brickman. So, although Professor Brickman is an expert in the law and jurisprudence, I am relieved that he does not seem to be personally litigious.

Please welcome Lester Brickman.


As many of you know from reading Roger Parloff's article,[1] about 90,000 new asbestos claims were filed last year. That's approximately triple the number of just two years ago.[2] If asbestos litigation filing rates were an accurate indication of asbestos-related injury, we could conclude that such injuries had reached epidemic proportions. In fact, they haven't. Far from it.

Most injurious exposure to asbestos-containing materials occurred during World War II when the United States undertook the most massive shipbuilding effort in history—an effort that was critical to our success in the war.[3] 

The next wave of exposure came during the 1950s and the 1960s, when workers were exposed to asbestos-containing products during their installation at numerous construction sites. However, by 1970, or shortly thereafter, when knowledge of the hazards of the use of asbestos-containing
products became widespread, manufacture of such products pretty much ceased. Significant exposure—from the point of view of injury producing potential—diminished substantially thereafter.

For the principal asbestos-related diseases of asbestos is and mesothelioma[4] to occur, there has to be substantial exposure over a period of time, followed by a ten to forty year latency period, before actual disease manifestation occurs. Given the current ages of the occupational groups that were subjected to high-exposure levels, and their dates of exposure, one would expect that the numbers of new asbestos claims would be declining to a comparative trickle today.

What then accounts for the disconnect between the dates and rates of exposure and the huge increases in recent years in the numbers of claim filings? The answer is simply astounding. But, to understand it, I have to take you first on a whistle-stop tour through Asbestos Litigation Land.