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New York Times columnist Joe Nocera called recent asbestos litigation a "scam" and complained that "tens of thousands" of asbestos cases are "bogus" and "phony," despite no evidence of widespread fraudulent asbestos claims.
Nocera dedicated his most recent column to attacking victims of asbestos exposure and their attorneys. Not only does Nocera significantly overstate the problem of fraudulent asbestos claims, he accused asbestos litigants of falsely attributing lung cancers to asbestos exposure to obtain damage awards.
From Nocera's December 2 column:
It's hard these days for smokers to sue tobacco companies because everyone knows the dangers of cigarettes. Instead, [Rep. Carolyn] McCarthy has become part of a growing trend: lung cancer victims who are suing companies that once used asbestos.
With asbestos litigation well into its fourth decade -- the longest-running mass tort in American history -- you'd think the plaintiffs' bar would have run out of asbestos companies to sue. After all, asbestos lawsuits have bankrupted more than 100 companies. Yet McCarthy has found more than 70 additional companies to sue, including General Electric and Pfizer. Asbestos litigation, says Lester Brickman, a professor at Yeshiva University and perhaps the most vocal critic of asbestos lawsuits, "is a constant search for viable defendants." Because asbestos was once such a ubiquitous product, there is always somebody else to sue.
Let me stipulate right here that exposure to asbestos can be deadly. The worst illness it causes is mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that essentially suffocates its victims to death. If it were only the real victims of asbestos-related diseases who sued, there would be no issue. That's how the tort system is supposed to work.
But, over the years, plaintiffs' lawyers have brought tens of thousands of bogus cases. They took doctors on their payroll to industrial sites, where all the employees would be screened for signs of an asbestos-related disease. They found some real cases, of course -- along with many that could never have stood up in court. Nonetheless, by bundling real cases with phony ones -- and filing giant lawsuits -- they took down one company after another.
Nocera is disturbed by the fact that McCarthy, a smoker, has opted to sue asbestos manufacturers instead of tobacco companies. But regardless of the individual merits of McCarthy's suit (which hasn't been decided yet), it is wholly irresponsible for Nocera to use it as evidence of "tens of thousands" of other bogus claims -- especially since there's no concrete evidence of widespread asbestos litigation fraud. When Congress asked the United States Government Accountability Office to audit these trusts (set up at the asbestos companies' initiative), the GAO reported that audits had not "identified cases of fraud."