Asbestos law dates back to 1929 in the United States. However, by the 1970s, the evidence of the material as a substantial health hazard had become abundantly clear. This changed the way asbestos claims were viewed.
In the early 1980s, the some plaintiffs started receiving multi-million dollar jury awards and settlements for asbestos claims. This caused the Manville Corporation, formerly the Johns Manville Corporation, a Fortune 500 company, to file for bankruptcy protection. The Manville Corporation was an asbestos manufacturer that had thousands of lawsuits brought against the company related to the health effects of the product.
Court documents showed that the Manville Corporation had a long history of hiding evidence of the harmful effects of asbestos from its employees and the public. At the time it went bankrupt, it was the largest U.S. company ever to file for bankruptcy protection.
New laws and the changing landscape caused asbestos manufacturers to alter the way they operated. Many large manufacturers diversified their products, produced substitutes, sold off subsidiaries, or started asbestos removal businesses. Due to the health hazards caused by asbestos and resulting lawsuits, the removal of the product became big business.
By the early 1990s, more than half of the top 25 largest asbestos manufacturers had filed for bankruptcy protection. This shielded them from creditors. Bankruptcy protection caused plaintiff lawyers to seek new avenues of relief for the clients, targeting companies that used it in their products. Large companies that have seen significant asbestos litigation include the Boeing Company, the Ford Motor Company, Deere & Company, and the Sears Roebuck & Company.
The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld the rights of individuals to pursue asbestos claims. Two large class action asbestos settlements came before the Court in 1997 and 1999. The Court rejected both, as they would have excluded future claims.
Legislation has been proposed to reduce the amount of asbestos litigation in the United States. However, still today the U.S. Congress has failed to act on a 2005 bill entitled “Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005”. If passed, the Act would establish a $140 billion trust fund for victims. The Act would limit employer liability. In the meantime, federal and state courts have thousands of asbestos cases on the docket. Due to the delayed onset of the disease, it is predicted the number of asbestos cases will continue to increase in the coming years.