The number of litigants or more precisely, defendants in asbestos cases is over 6,000. That figure does not reflect the true nature of asbestos litigation, however, because 80% or more of the settlements and findings for personal injury plaintiffs have been against a few hundred defendants. The estimates today put the figure at 200 companies or less, but that can be misleading also because of all the mergers, acquisitions and company name changes that have occurred over the years. In many cases, law firms will sue a small company that used asbestos materials when in fact the target defendant is the company that manufactured those materials. That explains the large number of defendants. The fact remains that legally, the liability for tens of thousands of asbestos related injuries and deaths has fallen on a few hundred companies that fall into three categories, firms that:
- Mined and produced asbestos raw materials
- Made products that contained asbestos
- Used asbestos-based products in their manufacturing processes
History of Asbestos Litigation
Asbestos litigation dates back to 1929, when the first suits were brought against asbestos manufacturers. The legal activity was sparse however until well after the conclusion of World War II. Asbestos usage peaked in the United States in 1973 with a little over 800,000 tons of the mineral used in the manufacture of thousands of products. Usage declined fairly rapidly thereafter, as the volume of medical studies continued to grow that showed asbestos to be a likely cause of cancer. By that time, there was a steady stream of legal action against asbestos companies taken by former employees who had begun to get sick.
The two primary asbestos related diseases, mesothelioma and asbestosis, both have inordinately long periods of latency. Mesothelioma typically does not manifest itself for forty years or more after the asbestos exposure has occurred. For that reason the tens of thousands of Work War II vets that were exposed to asbestos on Navy ships or in military barracks and buildings were not diagnosed until the 1970s and 1980s, when the first waves of asbestos lawsuits began. That wave continued through the 20th Century as mesothelioma cancer took its toll among the hundreds of thousands of individuals who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace or during military service.
Asbestos Companies and Bankruptcy
Two things became apparent during the first decade of heavy asbestos litigation, which began in about 1970. The first was the likelihood of large jury awards for fatal or life threatening asbestos related diseases that developed on the job. The second was that there were untold thousands of workers either approaching retirement or in retirement who were getting sick. The potential liability exposure grew to be massive for companies that had been making or using asbestos products for decades, and they began to take refuge in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The first company to do so was Johns Manville in 1982, ironically the company founded by the man who developed asbestos as a source of industrial material, H.W. Johns.
Since that date over 100 firms have filed for bankruptcy protection because of the thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of asbestos liability cases they faced. The formula that seems to have emerged for the firms facing the largest liabilities has been to agree to establish a trust fund for paying off asbestos claims, in return for an agreement with the court and all plaintiffs that the assets in the trust fund will cap the company’s asbestos liability, allowing it to emerge from bankruptcy and resume business.
The Asbestos Trusts
There are at least 26 major trusts in operation today making payments on asbestos related liability claims, for companies that have acknowledged their responsibility for asbestos exposure and returned to business with new product lines and/or production processes that do not involve asbestos. Johns Manville is today a profitable manufacturer of asbestos-free insulation and roofing materials, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Group.
Many of those trusts contained well over one billion dollars when established; those are the major trusts and they provide a fairly accurate sampling of where the largest volume of asbestos liability claims has been directed. Some firms have simply gone out of business and many others have been absorbed in mergers and acquisitions. Dresser Inc. is a major defendant in asbestos cases that was acquired by Halliburton Corp. which has become the target of many Dresser-based lawsuits. Some companies have changed names as ownership has changed, resulting in lawsuits that name the current firm and all of its predecessors.
There are a number of smaller trusts and several companies that have managed the bankruptcy process and liability settlements without establishing a trust. Some companies like General Motors have managed their asbestos liability problems, while others like United States Steel simply disappeared as a corporate entity. The resolution of asbestos liability cases today has become a combination of lawsuits and trust fund settlements; there are few new defendants as asbestos products have been off the shelves now for about 35 years.
Thousands of Industrial Sites
This happened in a myriad of industrial sites. Shipyard workers and Navy veterans have been among the most severely impacted professional groups because of their exposure to all of the asbestos insulation used in ships built in the 20th Century, especially in the engine room. Refinery workers and chemical plant workers were exposed to asbestos for similar reasons: asbestos is an excellent insulating material and refineries, chemical plants and power generation plants generate lots of heat. That requires the use of lots of insulation, which was almost always made from or laced with asbestos.
Construction workers used wallboard made with asbestos content, joint compound containing asbestos, flooring made with asbestos, roofing and siding materials made from asbestos compound and cement containing asbestos. Today they are still in danger if they are involved in a demolition project on a building containing asbestos insulation or other products. Any heating system using a boiler used asbestos insulation on the boiler, furnace and pipes. The same was true of home HVAC systems. Workers in refractories, steel mills, and iron workers used asbestos clothing for heat protection. Paper mills used asbestos textiles for belts used to carry paper through a drying process, belts that frayed at high speed. Auto and pump manufacturers used asbestos gaskets and bearing packing material for decades.
Tracking Down Asbestos Exposure
There is a collection of two to three hundred firms that bear the brunt of asbestos exposure liability. It’s difficult to put an exact number to the companies because of the mergers and name changes. But if you think you are a victim of asbestos exposure and you’re not sure quite where the job was or what the name of the company was or is today, take a look at our individual state pages. There you will find addresses for job site locations, names of defunct companies and names of the companies that have superseded them. In many cases you’ll find multiple entries for the same site because of the confusion name changes can cause.
There’s also our alphabetical listing of asbestos defendants provided here. If you’re still unsure about how to go about filing an asbestos claim, contact one of our attorneys today. They understand the maze of companies, bankruptcies, mergers and name changes that are part of gaining compensation for asbestos exposure. Scroll through the tools we’ve provided and then give us a call.
- Worldwide Asbestos Use 1900 – 2003, USGS, United States Department of the Interior, http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2006/1298/c1298.pdf
- NIOSH Workplace Safety & Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/asbestos/
- More about Asbestos, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos/more_about_asbestos/what_is_asbestos/