Traditionally in the history of the American worker, when an employee has been damaged or injured as a result of negligence on the part of the employer, the only option available has been workers’ compensation. But all of that changed with asbestos litigation and the case of Clarence Borel. Borel was a laborer who worked with asbestos for nearly thirty years, and his pursuit of justice against the companies that exposed him to asbestos and who caused his asbestosis changed the course of legal history.
First Asbestos Trial
Clarence Borel began working with asbestos in 1936. The father of six worked long hours to support his family of six children. His responsibilities largely involved insulating pipes, boilers and other items that reached extremely high temperatures; the working environment he found himself in was the Texas and Louisiana oil refineries and shipyards. The insulation was made up of asbestos, and with no protective gear and no warning from his employers, he constantly inhaled asbestos dust and fibers. Thirty years later he found himself in pain and having difficulty breathing, and his physicians diagnosed him with asbestosis.
In the late-1960s when Borel received his diagnosis, the only recourse available to help him with his mounting medical bills was to file a workmen’s compensation claim, which he did. But the $13,000 settlement that was provided through that venue was nowhere near enough to cover his bills, so he ensued on a path of suing the asbestos companies behind his illness for $1 million dollars. He won his case but never knew it, as he died before the verdict was delivered.
Changes in Tort Law
There were two reasons why Borel was able to win his asbestos case against the manufacturers that used the deadly carcinogen; one was that by the late 1960s, science had established that asbestos caused cancer and other illnesses, so the asbestos companies were no longer able to deny the dangers of the product. The second was that by the mid-1960s, tort law had been established that defined the liability of sellers of products that caused damages. They also proved that the asbestos manufacturers were aware of the dangers but did not warn their employees or the public. As a result, they were able to be held responsible for the damage caused by their products.
The result of Clarence Borel’s lawsuit was that asbestos workers were able to pursue the manufacturers of asbestos-filled products, as well as their employers who exposed them to the toxic materials. Soon it became apparent that not only were the workers themselves getting sick from asbestos-related diseases, but so were their family members and other people that they came into close contact with. People who were exposed in the buildings they worked in or who lived near asbestos plants and mines were also becoming sick and began to file asbestos lawsuits. Asbestos quickly became the largest mass tort case in American legal history.
Financial Assistance for Mesothelioma Victims
As word spread about the possibility of receiving financial assistance and compensation for the illnesses that were caused by asbestos, more and more victims came forward and began to file lawsuits. By the early 1980s there were approximately 1,000 victims filing suit against asbestos manufacturers; twenty years later that number had grown to three quarters of a million. Likewise, as more information became available about what products contained asbestos and were making people ill, the number of companies being sued by asbestos victims grew from approximately 300 to just under 9,000.
As the number of asbestos litigation cases grew, the companies that were responsible for asbestos exposure, and the subsequent diagnoses of asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer, found themselves facing multiple cases representing potential expenditures of millions of dollars each. Many of the companies claimed to be on the verge of financial collapse, and filed for bankruptcy protection. The result was that as the companies reorganized, they were required to set up trusts specifically to address the needs of asbestos victims who might file claims against them in the future for expenses related to their malignant mesothelioma or other illnesses. These trusts are referred to as asbestos bankruptcy trusts, and they have been put in place by dozens of companies.
Asbestos Bankruptcy Trusts Set Aside Millions for Victims
The asbestos bankruptcy trusts that have been established hold billions in monies that have been specifically set aside to compensate victims of asbestos exposure. The funds follow an established process of identifying specifics of each case, including the diagnosis, the age of the victim, and other variables, and use a formula to determine the compensation that will be provided. Though pursuing a claim through an asbestos bankruptcy trust does not generally provide the same level of compensation that a personal injury claim does, it has the benefit of resolving much more quickly, which is a plus for those facing a shortened life expectancy who do not want to spend valuable time pursuing a lengthy litigation process.