WASHINGTON – The money that can be made in representing asbestos-related and mesothelioma cases is attracting less-than-ethical attorneys out to ensnare less-than-wary-litigants, a spokesman for a tort reform advocacy group said in a recent interview.
Prospective litigants should be especially wary of law firms' advertised claims that they specialize in asbestos cases, Darren McKinney, director of communications at the American Tort Reform Association, said during a recent SE Texas Record interview. "And offhand, ATRA is not aware of any law firms specializing in asbestos claims that we’d call 'reputable' insofar as virtually all of them engage in 'double-dipping' – filing both lawsuits and administrative claims with asbestos bankruptcy trusts – and coaching clients to tell differing exposure stories so as to maximize their profits even if it means a given trust is unjustly and prematurely depleted, leaving future claimants with nothing."
Multi-million dollar awards and settlements catch headlines, but asbestos litigation numbers are hard to come by because there is no national registry for asbestos-related claims. A report, "Asbestos Litigation: 2015 Year in Review", issued by KCIC, a consulting firm that specializes in helping companies manage product liability, indicates such cases are on the decline, however.
The number of unique asbestos-related filings in 2015, 4,465 cases, was down 7 percent from the 4,820 cases in 2014, the KCIC report said. Though the drop is only slight, it's enough to attract the notice of bottom-feeders in the legal community who often place open-ended advertisements to recruit prospective asbestos litigators, McKinney said.
McKinney examined one such advertisement at the SE Texas Record's request, an advertisement disguised as a news release recruiting U.S. Navy veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma and their families to contact one law firm. That no individual representing a class of plaintiffs was included in the advertisement should be a warning to prospective litigants, McKinney said.
"Insofar as this news release doesn’t even quote an individual at the so-called 'center,' the whole thing reads like just another marketing ploy," he said. "As the number of meso diagnoses steadily shrink from year to year, the shysters who’ve gotten rich off asbestos are increasingly desperate to maintain market share by distinguishing themselves from competing shysters."
McKinney did not have any data about how many such ads may be out there, in print, on television or on the Internet.
"I don’t necessarily know if ads like these are 'typical',” he said. "They’re certainly not uncommon."
Some of the more egregious unethical legal practices have been attracting their own attention. In November, Mealey’s Litigation Report raised the alarm by taking a closer look at the Garlock Sealings Technology bankruptcy. The report found a pattern of “systemic suppression of trust disclosures."
"This commentary provides further evidence of the abuse that is being perpetrated on the U.S. civil justice system through the strategic suppression of exposure evidence by plaintiff law firms in asbestos litigation," the report said. "It is clear from the Garlock discovery data that Garlock, Crane and other tort defendants have been denied constitutional rights to due process. To the extent that judges or other principal players involved in national asbestos litigation remain unconvinced of the magnitude of the abuse, or simply choose to ignore it, the findings revealed by this analysis of the Garlock data should serve as powerful evidence of the urgent need for enhanced transparency and more open interface between the two available sources of payment."
The same month the report was released, the former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted in federal court on seven corruption charges. Those charges included his handling of asbestos litigation. Testimony in the case included details about cancer patients directed to Silver’s law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, by one doctor in exchange for New York state research grants.
That case and more is enough to give a potential asbestos-related litigant pause, but care, attention and a bit of scrutiny will turn up reputable and professional representation, McKinney said. "There’s no shortage of legal resources available to those legitimately diagnosed with mesothelioma."
In Texas, one of the most notable asbestos-related cases in recent memory was filed last summer by former district judge and now Jefferson County’s district attorney, who filed a petition perpetuate testimony to investigate the asbestos exposure of the late refereeing legend H.T. “Beau” Hicks Jr.
The Mesothelioma Center's Asbestos.com includes a page on its website with tips about how to find a attorney to represent an asbestos-related case. Those tips include looking for an attorney or law firm with a proven track record in asbestos-related cases, who can travel to the litigant to gather information, who has experience filing claims with asbestos trust funds and who can advise about potential compensation based on facts in a given case.