Asbestos Lawsuit Stays On Docket

U.S. Army soldiers from 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment are inspected before a patrol in Baqouba, Iraq, Monday, June 29, 2009.
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
The Supreme Court refused Monday to block a massive asbestos trial in West Virginia.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not comment in turning down requests from Mobil Corp. and other large companies that stand to lose millions if found liable in the trial scheduled for Sept. 23 in a West Virginia court.

The trial will combine the cases of some 8,000 people who claim asbestos exposure against 250 companies. The companies are employers, building owners, manufacturers and others.

Over the summer, two companies asked the Supreme Court to consider whether the trial would be unconstitutional. The court has not acted on that appeal. The companies returned to the high court this month to request an emergency delay in the trial, arguing that the issue cannot wait until early October, when the court's term begins.

Corporations, fearing costly jury verdicts, could be forced to settle out of court, attorney Walter Dellinger said in the filing for Mobil Corp. and Honeywell International.

"If this patently unconstitutional trial plan succeeds in coercing mass settlements of merit-less claims, then the result will be more merit-less claims and more unconstitutional trial plans," Dellinger wrote.

"Clearly the total liability for all the plaintiffs would be enormous, potentially in the hundreds of millions of dollars," said Mark Behrens, an attorney for a group of insurers who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

Asbestos was widely used for fireproofing and insulation until the 1970s, when its use was curtailed after scientists concluded that inhaled asbestos fibers could be linked to lung cancer and other diseases.

But asbestos-related illnesses can take years to materialize. With lawsuits spiking in the last three years, some 50 or so U.S. corporations are already in bankruptcy because of asbestos liabilities.

Many of the companies being sued now did not manufacture asbetos, but sold products containing it -- such as brake linings in cars.

U.S. insurers have already paid $22 billion in asbestos claims. But actuarial firm Tillinghast-Towers Perrin has estimated that U.S. corporations will eventually have to pay out $200 billion if current trends continue.

Nationwide, there are some 200,000 pending asbestos claims.

The West Virginia Supreme Court has endorsed trial consolidations to resolve large numbers of asbestos suits in that state.

The case is Mobil Corp. v. Adkins, 02-132.