November 06, 2002 - High Court Considers Asbestos Claims

The Supreme Court was asked Wednesday to limit asbestos lawsuits in a case that will determine if the fear of getting cancer is enough to entitle employees to damage awards. Additionally, Congress is being urged to protect companies from asbestos suits which could cost businesses $200 billion. There are more than 600,000 asbestos-related lawsuits before courts today and many more are expected to be filed.

Five years ago the high court ruled that railroad workers cannot sue their employers for emotional distress over exposure to cancer-causing asbestos if they had not been made ill by the fibrous mineral once commonly used in insulation and fireproofing material. Now the justices may take that one more step if they rule that railroad employees with asbestosis -- a potentially deadly lung disease -- cannot be compensated for fears of getting cancer.

An attorney for Norfolk Southern Corp., said the court recognized in the 1997 decision that there was a crisis. "That crisis is more acute now than any time in our history," he told justices. Norfolk is appealing a $5.8 million award to six retired workers who claim they have asbestosis. The workers sued under a federal law governing railroad employee suits and part of their award was intended to compensate for the fear of developing cancer later on. Justices debated whether that fear was reasonable, and if allowing cancer concerns to be considered in trial could lead to unpredictable and unlimited damages. "The reason these people are worried is that they have asbestosis and people with asbestosis have a greater probability of developing cancer," Justice David H. Souter said. However, Justice Stephen Breyer said the cases could cost so much that someone who develops cancer later will get nothing.

The Supreme Court passed up a chance this fall to get involved in a dispute over a giant asbestos trial in West Virginia involving more than 250 companies that were sued by 8,000 people. Out-of-court settlements left just one company in the case. Jurors will consider next month how much Union Carbide must pay for having an unsafe premises.

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