In general, mesothelioma lawsuits are not filed as class actions. Class action lawsuits are typically reserved for instances in which a large number of people have suffered an identical injury. Because not all asbestos victims suffered the same illness (some develop mesothelioma, while others develop asbestosis or lung cancer), mesothelioma lawsuits are typically filed on behalf of a single person against the asbestos company or companies that caused that person’s injuries. In the mid-1990s, a group of asbestos victims attempted to file a class action against more than 20 asbestos companies. Although a proposed settlement was reached, the Supreme Court objected to the settlement upon appeal, finding that because each asbestos victim suffered a varying degree of harm, the case should have never been treated as a class action.
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In 1997, the United States Supreme Court reviewed a proposed class action settlement in the case of AmChem Products, Inc. v. Windsor that would affect hundreds of thousands (and perhaps millions) of people who were adversely affected by asbestos manufactured by one or more of 20 companies. In describing the scope of the asbestos disaster, the Supreme Court stated:
“This is a tale of danger known in the 1930s, exposure inflicted upon millions of Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, injuries that began to take their toll in the 1960s, and a flood of lawsuits beginning in the 1970s. On the basis of past and current filing data, and because of a latency period that may last as long as 40 years for some asbestos-related diseases, a continuing stream of claims can be expected. The final toll of asbestos-related injuries is unknown. Predictions have been made of 200,000 asbestos disease deaths before the year 2000 and as many as 265,000 by the year 2015.”
Despite the number of people exposed to asbestos, the Supreme Court ruled that federal asbestos lawsuits should not proceed as class actions, in part because asbestos victims experience varying degrees of harm. In ruling that federal courts should not treat asbestos lawsuits as class actions, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s analysis, stating:
“Class members were exposed to different asbestos-containing products, for different amounts of time, in different ways, and over different periods. Some class members suffered no physical injury or have only asymptomatic pleural changes, while others suffered from lung cancer, disabling asbestosis, or from mesothelioma. Each has a different history of cigarette smoking, a factor that complicates the causation inquiry.
The exposure-only plaintiffs especially share little in common, either with each other or with the presently injured class members. It is unclear whether they will contract asbestos-related disease and, if so, what disease each will suffer. They also incur different medical expenses because their monitoring and treatment will depend on singular circumstances and individual medical histories.”
The Supreme Court noted the rules applicable to federal courts only allow for cases to proceed as class actions if certain requirements are satisfied. In this case, even though the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit with the understanding that the asbestos companies would agree to a global class action settlement, the Supreme Court ruled that the case still must satisfy the class action requirements as if the lawsuit were going to be litigated. For example, common issues of law and fact did not “predominate” over individual issues. Specifically, the Supreme Court found that while some class members could clearly demonstrate the level of harm they suffered because of asbestos exposure, many other class members had not yet exhibited any physical symptoms of asbestos-related health problems.
In 1991, the federal court system established a unified legal proceeding, known as a multidistrict litigation, to handle the tens of thousands of asbestos lawsuits filed in federal courts. A multidistrict litigation (“MDL”) is a special legal proceeding designed to increase the judicial efficiency of handling complex cases affecting large numbers of people. Although they share some similarities, MDLs are not the same as class actions.
The asbestos MDL is the largest and longest-lasting MDL in the history of the federal court system. In total, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred over 170,000 asbestos lawsuits to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a federal court located in Philadelphia.
In 2011, the judge presiding over the asbestos MDL, the Honorable Eduardo C. Robreno, stopped accepting new cases. As of June 2014, there were 2,814 lawsuits still pending in the MDL. Although the MDL is closed to new lawsuits, asbestos victims may continue to file lawsuits in federal court, but new federal asbestos lawsuits will not be transferred to Judge Robreno’s chambers in Philadelphia. Instead, the cases will remain in the federal courthouses in which they are filed.