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The History of Asbestos Litigation in the US

By: Anapol Weiss

Asbestos appears naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers. Once considered a go-to insulation material, asbestos is now widely recognized as a dangerous cause of cancer. The shipbuilding industry is particularly well-known for using asbestos in its boilers, steam pipes, and hot water pipes, but it was also widely used in construction, the automotive industry, and more. Asbestos exposure generally= comes through inhalation, meaning that people working in asbestos industries and their families are most at risk.

The asbestos industry has faced hundreds of thousands of lawsuits over the last half century, as more and more information has come out proving that many companies had known about its dangerous effects and deliberately suppressed the information.

Asbestos has been used for centuries; Ancient Egyptians used it to make burial shrouds. However, it is only since the Industrial Revolution that large numbers of people were exposed to asbestos in such quantities as to cause a major health crisis. Commercial production of asbestos insulation began in 1879, and the first cases of asbestos-related disease followed close behind. Only 20 years later, in 1899, doctors described “curious bodies” in the lungs of a patient with asbestos-related disease: asbestos fibers. Less than a decade later, one doctor reported a curiously high mortality rate among asbestos workers.

In the 1920s and 1930s, more doctors began to directly attribute asbestosis and lung cancer to asbestos exposure. A series of studies proved the dangers of asbestos, but many of them were hushed up by corporations. The US and the UK began introducing limited regulations to protect workers most affected by asbestos exposure, particularly those working in asbestos factories. In the 1960s, studies showed that dangers of asbestos exposure were not limited to workers in asbestos factories, but extended to those working more indirectly with asbestos and even those living near factories. Furthermore, a third asbestos-related disease was discovered in the 1960s: mesothelioma. The issue began to attract media attention in the US and the UK alike, with articles appearing in various newspapers and stories broadcasted on television.

In 1969, the US saw its first personal injury lawsuit filed against a major company, Borel v. Fibreboard Paper Products Corps., in which the victim claimed damages due to asbestos-related illness. Over the next few decades, the largest mass tort ever brought to court in the US erupted. Lawyers have been able to prove that companies had knowledge at every level of the dangers of asbestos exposure, yet they ignored or even hid the information. Several of the largest companies in the country were implicated. Many of the companies that mined, manufactured, or used asbestos have closed or gone bankrupt under the weight of litigation. Though regulations are much stricter now, asbestos litigation is still ongoing. Asbestos-related diseases often take decades to manifest, so victims are still finding out today that they were affected by asbestos and bringing their cases to court, long after they were exposed.

Contact our firm for assistance if your loved one was diagnosed with mesothelioma or an asbestos-related condition. We can answer your legal questions and help prepare you for the road ahead.