U.S. Supreme Court Blocks Asbestos Lawsuit

(March 3, 2012) The U.S. Supreme Court has made it more difficult for victims of asbestos exposure to file suit under state laws.  On Wednesday, in a 6 – 3 opinion, the justices ruled that railroad maintenance workers couldn’t file lawsuits against locomotive equipment manufacturers for alleged asbestos-related injuries. This is because they were preempted by the federal Locomotion Inspection Act (formerly known as the Boiler Inspection Act of 1911).  The problem is, in 1911, they did not know the dangers of asbestos.

This week, the Supreme Court ruled that they would not redefine the preempted field. The court did not distinguish between hazards arising from repair and maintenance as opposed to those arising from actual use of asbestos on the line.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, asbestos was considered an ideal material for the construction industry. It was known to be an excellent fire retardant, to have high electrical resistance, and was inexpensive and easy to use. The problem was, asbestos arises when the fibers become airborne and are inhaled. Because of the sizes of the fibers, the lungs cannot expel them. They are also sharp and penetrate tissues. Health problems attributed to asbestos include:  1) asbestosis, which is scarring of the lung tissue, which can become so severe, that the lungs can no longer function. The latency period is 10-20 years, 2) mesothelioma, which is cancer of the mesothelial lining of the lungs, although not associated with smoking. Latency period is 20-50 years. Most patients die within 12 months of diagnosis, 3) cancer of the lung, GI tract, kidney and larynx have been linked to asbestos. The latency period is 15-30 years. 4) diffuse pleural thickening.

When a mesothelioma victim or a victim of asbestosis files a state-law personal injury lawsuit, it is claiming that the manufacturers of asbestos products knew the dangers associated with asbestos and did nothing to protect these victims. There is a need for judges to discuss the problem of asbestos litigation, the biggest, single-tort crisis in American history. America’s courts are buried under all these asbestos cases, of which only one quarter is legitimate, asbestos-related injuries.

Unfortunately, as mesothelioma litigation began, so did litigation involving pleural plaque, which is a generic scarring of the lungs with many possible causes.  The courts were clogged with cases.  Accordingly, cases involving severely injured “traditional plaintiffs,” which accounted for approximately ¾ of expenditures, as well as cases of marginal asbestosis, infiltrated the courts.  The pressure to slow the lawsuits down and to reduce the costs involved had the devastating effect of going too far to protect the defendants.

Accordingly, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision will have serious negative effects on all the families dealing with mesothelioma, asbestosis, and death, in addition to many thousands of dollars in medical bills they are left to pay.  These manufacturers should be held responsible for producing harmful, defective products, which caused the deaths of so many innocent people and ruined so many families.  It is crazy to think that the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA) from 1911 is still in place today, and supersedes the states’ personal injury laws. The law requires locomotive parts to be in good working order and safe to operate. This law is completely outdated, as are the locomotives that were used in 1911! Congress really needs to make some changes and protect the American people.  This LIA no longer serves public interest and should be repealed. Is this justice?

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