That subtle substance

The SE Texas Record May 26, 2007, 6:00am

Lawsuits alleging asbestos-related wrongs are old news here in Beaumont.

But they've never been deemed very headline-worthy, despite their dramatic charges, well-known corporate targets, big dollar payouts and giant collective impact on the Southeast Texas job market.

Just last week alone, Gregory James Hunter sued 47 companies in Jefferson County Court over asbestos exposure. The list included General Electric and Viacom, best known as a movie maker and the owner of MTV. Maren Roberts sued 42 companies, including defense contractor Lockheed Martin, alleging the same.

It came as little surprise to us that we were the only media outlet reporting on these lawsuits, or on the other dozen or so nearly identical ones we've seen pass through the court clerk's office the past two months.

To be sure, the subject matter can be overwhelming. That's both in substance-- most wouldn't recognize a piece of asbestos if it were sitting on a table in front of us-- as well as scope. Serial filer Bryan Blevins of local plaintiff's juggernaut Provost Umphrey claims his firm has represented "approximately 15,000 plaintiffs in asbestos litigation." Whoa.

So out of 15,000, is any single case significant? Our position here is that they all are.

On their face, the charges made by lawyers like Blevins in asbestos lawsuits sound indefensible. Companies knowingly subjecting workers to a hazardous substance that destroys their quality of life or even slowly kills them, leaving families penniless or grieving. But there are two sides to every story, and in the name of justice we should strive to hear both of them.

Indeed, there's plenty of reason for the public to be skeptical of these cases. Back in January, Reader's Digest called asbestos litigation the "$40 billion scam." And in 2005, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi exposed a massive fraud in medical screening of potential asbestos plaintiffs.

To stop such malfeasance before it starts, it behooves the public to get informed and stay vigilant.

Asbestos is a difficult subject, but we'll do our part. One story at a time.

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