Mesothelioma. For most of us, the name of this asbestos-caused lung cancer is synonymous with bad late-night TV commercials imploring those afflicted to sue for contracting the disease. And with good cause. For roughly 3,000 Americans each year, it is a death sentence.
Sadly, mesothelioma’s victims extend beyond cancer patients to the U.S. justice system itself. The size and scale of the litigation — the longest-running in U.S history — has provided a vehicle ripe for abuse by clever trial lawyers who use sick clients as courtroom pawns to capture fat fees.
While lawyers take in an average of about $2 million per case (and often much more), asbestos victims themselves often end up receiving pennies on the dollar. The New York Times reports asbestos litigation is a “bonanza” for plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Overcharging clients is the beginning of the story. A new report by the Institute for Legal Reform finds that plaintiffs’ lawyers often engage in double-dipping to maximize payouts. This means pursuing different claims often based on different stories against different defendants for the same injury.
The recent release of the latest “Judicial Hellholes” report by the American Tort Reform Foundation highlights how trial lawyers also shop their claims to the country’s most favorable jurisdictions for civil litigation. At the top of the list for asbestos litigation is Newport News, Va., where major ship repairs involved tearing out asbestos from older World War II vessels. Newport News’ special application of Maritime Law, with its low evidentiary standard, results in the nation’s highest plaintiff victory rate at 85 percent. This win rate and consistent multimillion-dollar judgments have encouraged the filing of seven in every 10 Virginia asbestos cases in Newport News.
The poster boy for abusive asbestos litigation in Newport News is the politically connected attorney Robert “Bobby” Hatten. The record in Herman v. Owens Illinois, Inc. in 2013, brought by Mr. Hatten’s firm, is Exhibit A for the difficulties faced by defendants who face multiple claims from the same claimants who are seemingly encouraged to have different stories of what and where they suffered injuries. The new documentary “Unsettled: Inside the Strange World of Asbestos Lawsuits” showcases the exploitation.