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That's how in 1995 Ronald Huber became one faceless plaintiff among 5,000 class members--"They viewed their clients as mere inventory," the 2002 complaint says of its defendants. These mass tort cases typically involve dozens or even hundreds of corporate defendants and thousands of plaintiffs. There could be a core of wrenching cancer cases, but many of the plaintiffs are healthy people who could prove that they had been exposed to asbestos. Publicity about the evils of big corporations and asbestos cover-ups helped make for plaintiff-friendly juries, especially in states such as Texas and Mississippi, where the original Huber case was heard.
The results have been stunning. More than 2,400 companies have been sued, pushing at least 54 of them into bankruptcy. At least two companies filed for Chapter 11 just last month.
The corporate carnage is beginning to take some particularly odd twists. Consider oil-field-services company Halliburton. Its Dresser Industries subsidiary, which was acquired in 1998, may still face 200,000 lawsuits from a unit, Harbison-Walker, that was spun off in 1992 and that declared bankruptcy on Feb. 14. Then there is Viacom, which, via its purchase of cbs in 2000, inherited Westinghouse Electric's 130,000 lawsuits. When Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide last year, its executives were well aware that they would be inheriting litigation--but didn't expect liability concerns to push its stock down 30%, as they did during one week in January before recovering.
Certainly nobody predicted the effect the phrase "asbestos liability" has had on the stock prices of Viacom, Halliburton and 3M, which have also taken recent hits. What is more disturbing, however, is that evidence suggests the number of recent claimants who are actually ill is on the decline; in other words, the number of healthy claimants is climbing. "The bulk of these people have no impairment," says Steven Kazan, a lawyer who represents only patients sick with asbestos-related diseases. In 1999, 12% of the Manville Trust's 31,700 claimants were sick with asbestos-related ills. Last year the number of claimants soared to 91,000, only 6% of them sick.
But lest we forget: even more disturbing than the victorious, healthy plaintiffs are those who are sick and feel shortchanged. It's this trend that Huber v. Taylor hopes to address. Federal Judge Donald J. Lee will assess that case's merits in coming months.
The litigious boom may deplete both the goodwill and the financial resources to deal with serious future victims of asbestos poisoning. "Asbestos has a long incubation period, and we're still seeing cases where the exposure took place in World War II," says Kazan. "How will cancer victims 40 years from now be compensated?" Adding to the problem: thousands of healthy plaintiffs, worried they may be left out, file claims to protect themselves lest a firm go bankrupt before they show any symptoms.