Settlement ends asbestos cases

Published Sept. 13, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

A federal judge and a state judge on Wednesday called off a mass trial of 265 asbestos health-liability cases after reaching out-of-court settlements in nearly all the claims. Details on the amount of the settlements were not revealed.

The cases, which stem from asbestos exposure at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York dating to the 1940s, involved many severe illnesses and were viewed as a litmus test in a drive to clear court dockets nationwide of asbestos claims.

U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein and New York state Supreme Court Judge Helen E. Freedman praised both sides for "extraordinary efforts to dispose of these cases without expensive and time-consuming trials."

Asbestos trials routinely require legal investigation of each claim of illness or death related to asbestos, the insulation material that was used widely at shipyards and other construction sites for decades. The Brooklyn trial had been estimated to last six months.

Attorneys involved in the case said more than 200 of the 265 pending lawsuits had been settled. The judges said the remaining cases will proceed to trial separately in state and federal court, rather than in a joint trial.

Settlement negotiations had whittled the number of Brooklyn Navy Yard cases down from 615 in April, when Weinstein and Freedman announced consolidation into a single trial.

Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer appointed by Weinstein to try to settle the cases out of court, said negotiations will continue to try to resolve the remaining cases.

Weinstein has been leading an effort to reduce the nation's backlog of 90,000 asbestos lawsuits clogging state and federal courts.

The judge also is participating in the restructuring of the Manville Trust, which handles about 130,000 pending settlement claims against Manville Corp., a leading asbestos manufacturer.

In several court hearings in recent months, Weinstein has stressed the need for plaintiff lawyers and defendant companies to reach out-of-court settlements. He also has criticized the amount of money lawyers have received for handling the cases.

"The judge was looking for a more efficient way to get these cases resolved," Feinberg said of the Brooklyn cases. "This is important to demonstrate that settlement of mass cases is possible."

New York has been slow to resolve serious cases involving diseases such as lung cancer and other respiratory ailments because of a glitch in state law.

Unlike most other states, New York's legislature had applied a statute of limitations that prevented lawsuits against asbestos makers. Illness from inhaling asbestos fibers can take decades to appear, but the state had required suing close to the time of exposure.

In 1986, the state lifted the ban, allowing claimants one year to file claims against asbestos manufacturers. Many of those claims, some of which were diagnosed as long ago as 20 years, only now are being resolved.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard employed more than 70,000 people at the height of its shipbuilding during World War II.