Some of the first recorded reports related to the hazards of asbestos go as far back as the late 1800s. One prominent example is the Lady Inspectors of England report to the English Parliament regarding “the evil affects of asbestos” in the surrounding textile mills. Many U.S. case reports emerged in the early 1900s regarding the documented dangers of asbestos. In fact, in 1927 a new disease was coined within the medical community named from the very poison that caused it. That disease was called asbestosis.
Knowledge of this disease was widely published within the scientific and medical literature, as well as various trade organizations. In 1930, an article by Merryweather and Price made it clear that asbestos, not only in its raw form but also in the form of finished products (such as brakes, gaskets, joint compound, roofing products, etc), posed a significant health risk to anyone within breathing range of these asbestos products. During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, thousands of articles were published throughout the world, discussing the fatal disease of asbestosis and later, mesothelioma, and the dangers of working with or around asbestos-containing products. The reports made it clear that workers should be warned of these health hazards because asbestos does not irritate or affect the worker/bystander; and the disease does not manifest itself until decades later.
Throughout the many years of litigation, plaintiffs’ attorneys have uncovered thousands of corporate documents discussing the known hazards of asbestos. These documents clearly demonstrate that the companies intentionally took advantage of the latency period associated with the development of asbestos disease. In other words, the companies believed that since on average it would take 30-40 years before an individual was diagnosed with an asbestos disease, specifically mesothelioma, and that on average a mesothelioma victim would have less than 18 months to live, the companies could evade responsibility by running the clock. Moreover, these documents also demonstrate that the companies believed that it would be cheaper or more cost effective to pay those individuals than to lose profits by using alternatives to asbestos within their products.
Litigation against these companies helped facilitate not only corporate change but also governmental intervention. Many asbestos containing products were banned by the federal government in the late 1970s. This governmental ban came about in no small part due to the courageous victims of asbestos disease, who invoked their constitutional right to have their case heard by a jury of their peers. Finally, one could make many parallels between the asbestos litigation against the offending companies and other environmental litigation, such as toxic waste dumps, and pollution of our country’s lakes and rivers, water contamination, etc. Without the resulting litigation, can it be credibly stated that these companies would have instituted change due to their own corporate or moral conscience?