U.S. Supreme Court overturns class-action asbestos lawsuit

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-2 ruling in the Amchem asbestos lawsuit that will prevent a $1.2 billion class-action settlement for workers who suffer from asbestos-related diseases.

Thousands of building trades and shipyard workers who worked with asbestos in countless insulating capacities until its ban in 1979 have been diagnosed with asbestos-related disease. Thousands more face possible future health-related problems due to occupational asbestos exposure.

Some companies that manufactured or produced asbestos-containing products had filed bankruptcy in the wake of a large number of individual lawsuits.

Robert Georgine, president of the national AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, filed a class-action suit in the District Court of Philadelphia in 1993 to curtail the possible bankruptcy of more asbestos-product companies and to provide economic recovery for the workers currently suffering or who might suffer from occupational exposure to asbestos. However, many local unions throughout the country were advising union members to opt out of the class action and go after settlements individually.

The class-action lawsuit named 20 manufacturers of asbestos-containing products (who had previously formed the Center for Claims Resolution - CCR - to jointly administer the claims as the defendants).

The case moved forward and both sides agreed to a settlement in U.S. District Court.

The class-action settlement had manufacturers conceding liability, ending the statute of limitations on filing claims, prioritizing cases to give the sickest members of the class action top status, and guaranteeing funding of up to $1.2 billion to resolve claims for some 100,000 people in the next 10 years.

The case then moved to appeal and the Third District U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the settlement. It held that class-action suits are improper in cases which cannot be litigated as a "class."

Federal rules of civil procedure deny class status at trial that cannot be litigated as "one case."

The Amchem case does represent a departure from traditional class-action suits in that the "class" is unusually broad -- different workers, different areas, different states and different manufacturers. The high court ruled that the class-action settlement would have affected too broad a spectrum of people -- those who currently suffer from the disease and those exposed to asbestos but without symptoms. "Lumping these diverse groups into a single mass class is inappropriate," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Georgine said the national building trades would "continue to work on behalf of our members to assure they will be compensated for illnesses and deaths caused by asbestos."


July 18, 1997 issue

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