Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) on June 20 signed legislation to reform the state’s asbestos litigation system. Florida joins a growing number of states that are requiring plaintiffs to present evidence of actual medical ailments before recovering damages from companies linked to the manufacture of asbestos.
Speculative Claims Removed
The legislation, HB 1019, prevents a plaintiff from recovering damages merely by showing, with or without attendant injury, that he or she was exposed to asbestos. To the extent asbestos-related companies face liability for alleged medical impairments, damages will be awarded only to persons who have a medically verified impairment.
Under the old system, the state’s court dockets were overwhelmed by people claiming damages on the mere speculation that they might experience some exposure-related ailments at some point in the future. According to the June 13 Palm Beach Post, 4,500 such speculative claims will be removed from the state’s dockets as a result of the bill.
State Was Litigation Magnet
The demand for asbestos litigation reform became particularly strong after thousands of out-of-state plaintiffs filed asbestos-related lawsuits in Florida state courts. Fueling the influx of “carpetbag” plaintiffs were the state’s infamously pro-plaintiff legal standards.
A Mississippi resident won a record $31 million verdict in Palm Beach County Court against Owens-Corning Fiberglass Company in 1997. Since that time, plaintiffs from across the country began flooding the county with asbestos suits, with as many as 3,400 such cases filling the county’s court dockets in 2002 alone.
Plaintiffs’ Attorney Worried
Miami plaintiffs’ attorney David Jagolinzer opposes the new law and vows to challenge its constitutionality.
Because asbestos litigation across the country already has bankrupted more than 60 companies–including such industry leaders as insulation maker Owens Corning, floor manufacturer Armstrong World Industries, chemical giant W.R. Grace, construction materials manufacturer USG Corp., and auto-parts conglomerate Federal-Mogul Corp., Jagolinzer fears there may be no businesses left to claim damages from if speculative claims are not allowed.
“By the time someone gets sick enough to meet the criteria, there won’t be any money left,” Jagonlinzer told the Post.
State Courts’ Reputation Poor
Largely due to the preexisting asbestos litigation system, the Institute for Legal Reform currently ranks Florida’s legal system as one of the 10 worst in the country. Moreover, Palm Beach County and South Florida in general are considered by the American Tort Reform Foundation to be the nation’s seventh worst judicial “hellhole.”
“The taxpayers of Palm Beach County ought not to be burdened with expending its resources associated with the high cost of lengthy asbestos trials between non-residents of the State of Florida where the cause of action accrued elsewhere,” said Judge Timothy McCarthy, who presides over all of South Florida’s asbestos cases, as quoted in the American Tort Reform Foundation’s Judicial Hellholes 2004.
“This is not only expensive but unfair to the thousands of Florida citizens whose access to court is being delayed, while Florida funds and provides court access to strangers,” McCarthy added.
“We commend the Florida Legislature for passing a bill that will unclog state courts, making it easier for patients with valid asbestos and silica claims to receive compensation,” American Tort Reform Association President Sherman Joyce said. “Courts should focus on those who are truly sick. The legislature was also wise in assuring that those who are not sick, but may become so in the future, will not lose their right to sue if they do become ill.”
“It is a good sign that states like Florida are continuing the trend among state governments to crack down on asbestos litigation abuse,” Sterling Burnett, senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis, said. “Plaintiffs should have to show that they have experienced actual harm before they can recover large sums of money in litigation lottery.”
James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.
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The American Tort Reform Foundation’s Judicial Hellholes 2004 report is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #17421.
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