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Asbestos Friendly Courts Drum Up More Business

By Michael Seinberg

Asbestos has become the bane of anyone who owns property but in New York, it has become the boon of trial lawyers and now, felons. New York’s famously asbestos-friendly courts have now reached a new low. Two convicted felons have filed separate but related lawsuits against a Monticello temple, the Landfield Avenue Synagogue alleging asbestos exposure.

The first suit was filed by Chris Colvill, 41, a convicted child sex offender who is also accused of stealing a $35,000 torah from the temple. It seems he worked for the temple as a laborer but exactly what he did and when is unclear in published reports.

The other suit was filed by Charles Shortridge, who is accused of cashing a fake cashier’s check in August of 2011. A fine citizen, Shortridge served two lengthy sentences, one for manslaughter and one for reckless endangerment and possessing stolen property. Just to prove he has initiative, Shortridge is now charged with attempted grand larceny in that he demanded the temple’s rabbi, Ben-Zion Chanowitz pay his $2400 bail or he would report that the temple illegally disposed of asbestos.

The alleged exposure took place in July 2010 when a third man who was doing court ordered community service uncovered asbestos while removing insulation from the temple. The two erstwhile jailhouse lawyers also allege they were exposed to asbestos in several other buildings owned by the temple. Shortridge worked for affiliated corporations of the temple between April 2010 and July 2011.

Finally, it appears that Shortridge convinced Colvill to file his suit and both men are representing themselves in court. It might just be because even trial lawyers have limits when it comes to frivolous cases filed by felons.

Ohio House Passes Asbestos Claims Transparency Legislation

By: Scott Hobson

The Ohio House has passed HB 380 which would require plaintiffs in asbestos litigation to disclose any additional claims they have pending against asbestos trusts. Said Ohio state representative Lou Blessing, “openness in legal proceedings is good and helps ensure that justice is fairly administered.”

We couldn’t agree more.  A recent report by the Government Accountability Office highlighted the secretive nature of asbestos trusts. The report studied 52 of the 60 asbestos trusts in existence and found that they have paid out approximately 3.3 million claims totaling $17.5 billion. Yet amazingly, only one trust publically disclosed the how much and to whom payments were made.

Equally troubling is the connection between asbestos law firms and the trusts they seek recovery from. A 2010 report by the RAND Institute for Civil Justice uncovered several such connections that should raise suspicion – demonstrating that the plaintiffs’ law firms effectively control the trusts through their management of the Trust Advisory Committees. For example, the law firm Weitz and Luxenberg has influence over 42% of the asbestos trusts reviewed in the study, serving as Trust Advisory Committee members.

Ohio’s legislation is a model of transparency and fairness. New York leaders should take note and advance similar measures to prevent unfair duplicative recoveries and shed light on firms which routinely abuse the system. Otherwise, financial incentives will continue to invite rampant abuse of the system and will hasten the depletion of funds intended for the truly sick.

Letter: Asbestos Drains Our Economy

A Letter to the Editor written by our Executive Director, Tom Stebbins, was run in Sunday’s edition of the Times Union.  The letter was in a response to an article titled,  The Asbestos Case ‘Business’which detailed how a local widow of a victim of asbestos exposure fell victim herself to the deceptive practices of trial lawyers.

Read the full letter here.

Top Litigators Meet to Discuss the Future of Asbestos Litigation in “Today’s Economic Environment”

By: Scott Hobson – Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York

Today, plaintiffs’ attorneys from across the nation will meet to discuss the future of asbestos litigation.  The event, “Litigating Asbestos Cases in Today’s Economic Environment”, highlights that the lawsuit industry is increasingly concerned about the public perception of massive legal judgments in today’s economy.  The program is chaired by New York attorneys Julie R. Evans of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman& Dicker, and Perry Weitz of the asbestos powerhouse Weitz and Luxenberg, a firm which recently obtained a $22m asbestos verdict against Goodyear for causing lung cancer in two men, despite the fact that the jury found their smoking habits mostly to blame for their disease.

Since litigation has bankrupted most American asbestos manufacturers, the discussion will likely center around recoveries from the asbestos injury trusts funds which are often established as part of the bankruptcy process of asbestos-producing companies.  These funds are used to compensate the victims of asbestos-related illnesses.  To date, approximately 100 companies have been bankrupted by asbestos related liability, and the number of trusts has grown from 16 to 60 in the past 11 years.  Currently the trusts have a total of $36.8 billion in assets a number that will increase to an estimated $60 billion once trusts in the formation stages begin paying claims.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), highlighted the secretive nature of these funds. The GAO report studied 52 of the 60 asbestos trusts in existence and found that they have paid out approximately 3.3 million claims totaling $17.5 billion.  Amazingly, only one trust publically disclosed the how much and to whom payments were made.

With so little disclosure, the potential for fraud is great. By alleging exposure from multiple sources, a claimant may receive payments from one or more trusts and still file a lawsuit for the same injury. In January 2007, Ohio Court of Common Pleas Judge Harry Hanna banned an asbestos law firm from practicing in the state after it was revealed that firm had filed multiple conflicting claims on behalf of their deceased client.  Despite this, the firm still collected an estimated $700,000 in legal fees.

The practice of inconsistent claiming – saying one thing about the “facts” underlying an injury to the trusts, and a different, and often contradictory, thing to tort defendants  has major impacts beyond the clear ethical issues raised.  Every dollar that is collected under such suspect – and often fraudulent circumstances is one less dollar available to those who are truly sick, and once the funds are depleted, they’re gone for good.

Equally troubling is the connection between asbestos law firms and the trusts they seek recovery from.  A 2010 report by the RAND Institute for Civil Justice uncovered several such connections that should raise suspicion – demonstrating that the plaintiffs’ law firms effectively control the trusts through their management of the Trust Advisory Committees.  For example, Weitz and Luxenberg has influence over 42% of the asbestos trusts reviewed in the study, serving as Trust Advisory Committee members.

Many states, including Texas and Florida have taken steps to curb the practice of “double dipping.” The recent GAO report highlights the need for New York to follow suit.  New York must pass legislation to create transparency in the process, prevent unfair duplicative recoveries, and shed light on firms which routinely abuse the system.  Otherwise, financial incentives will continue to invite rampant abuse of the system and will hasten the depletion of funds intended for the truly sick.

 

The National Law Journal – Never-ending asbestos quagmire

By Lisa Rickard, president of the Institute for Legal Reform

“It began on Dec. 10, 1966, at a courthouse in Beaumont, Texas. Attorney Ward Stephenson filed a lawsuit, on behalf of a client suffering from asbestosis, against 11 manufacturers of products containing asbestos. Though a jury ruled for the defendants in this first case, Stephenson tried again with a different client, and in 1973 a jury awarded Stephenson’s plaintiff $79,436.24 in damages.

Thus began the largest and most expensive mass tort litigation in history. During the next 40 years, hundreds of thousands of asbestos exposure lawsuits were filed against businesses, large and small, in nearly every state. By 2002, more than $79 billion in damages had been paid out to an estimated 730,000 claimants. The cost of this litigation contributed to the bankruptcies of nearly one hundred companies, employing tens of thousands of workers.

For decades, experts have predicted that the flood of asbestos claims would eventually decrease. After all, the use of asbestos declined rapidly beginning in the 1970s, a development that would presumably lead to a decrease in cases of mesothelioma, asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases.

Yet asbestos litigation costs show no signs of decreasing. In fact, they appear to be increasing.”

Read More from The National Law Journal