Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma: A Chronology of Litigation and Regulation

  • February 8, 2024

Asbestos, once hailed for its versatility and heat-resistant properties, has become synonymous with one of the most tragic public health crises of the 20th century. The link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer, has sparked decades of litigation and led to significant regulatory changes. This blog post explores the chronology of asbestos litigation and regulation, highlighting the key legal battles, regulatory milestones, and the ongoing struggle for justice by victims of asbestos exposure.

The Rise of Asbestos Use and Initial Health Concerns

Asbestos use in the United States peaked in the mid-20th century, finding its way into a wide array of products, from insulation and roofing materials to automotive parts and textiles. For years, the hazards of asbestos were not fully recognized by the public, despite early scientific studies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries indicating its harmful health effects. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the correlation between asbestos exposure and serious respiratory diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis, became undeniable, prompting the first wave of litigation against asbestos manufacturers and employers.

These initial lawsuits were filed by workers who had developed asbestos-related diseases after prolonged exposure to asbestos in their workplaces. The legal battles were arduous, as plaintiffs had to overcome significant legal hurdles, including proving causation and battling the powerful asbestos industry, which often denied responsibility and hid evidence of asbestos’ harmful effects. Despite these challenges, these early cases laid the groundwork for future litigation by establishing key legal precedents and bringing attention to the dangers of asbestos exposure.

Landmark Litigation and the Role of the Courts

The landscape of asbestos litigation saw a significant shift in the 1980s, with a surge in lawsuits filed by asbestos victims and their families. One landmark case was Borel v. Fibreboard Paper Products Corporation (1973), where the court ruled in favor of Clarence Borel, a worker who developed mesothelioma after years of handling asbestos products. This case marked the first major victory for asbestos victims and set a legal precedent for personal injury claims related to occupational asbestos exposure.

As the number of asbestos-related lawsuits continued to grow, the courts became overwhelmed, prompting the legal system to seek alternative solutions to manage the caseload. This led to the creation of multidistrict litigation (MDL) procedures to consolidate similar cases, streamline the legal process, and facilitate settlements. Additionally, some of the largest asbestos manufacturers filed for bankruptcy, leading to the establishment of asbestos trust funds designed to compensate victims outside the traditional court system.

Regulatory Responses and Asbestos Bans

Parallel to the litigation battles, regulatory efforts to control asbestos exposure and protect public health gained momentum. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began implementing regulations to limit asbestos use and exposure in the workplace. Notable regulatory milestones include the EPA’s banning of spray-applied asbestos products in 1973 and the introduction of the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) in 1986, which addressed asbestos in schools.

Despite these efforts, a complete ban on asbestos has never been achieved in the United States. The EPA’s attempt to ban most asbestos-containing products in 1989 was largely overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. However, the fight for stricter asbestos regulations continues, with advocacy groups and lawmakers pushing for comprehensive legislation to finally ban asbestos and protect public health.

Ongoing Challenges and the Quest for Justice

Today, asbestos litigation remains one of the longest-running mass torts in U.S. history, with new cases being filed as individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases seek compensation. The latency period of mesothelioma, which can span decades, means that exposures from the mid-20th century are still resulting in new diagnoses today.

The chronology of asbestos litigation and regulation underscores a complex journey from widespread use to recognition of its dangers, and the ongoing efforts to seek justice for victims. Despite the progress made in regulating asbestos and compensating victims, the battle is far from over, as advocates continue to push for stricter bans and regulations. The legacy of asbestos exposure and the fight for accountability and protection continue to influence public health policy and litigation strategies.


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