U.S. District Court Reinstates Asbestos Claims Against Shipowners

asbestos claims

Decades ago, hundreds of thousands of maritime workers filed lawsuits against shipowners and companies alleging that they had exposed them to asbestos.  A large portion of those asbestos claims have remained stagnant since 1989, but now a District Court has reinstated claims filed by the estates of two sailors.

The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has reinstated two lawsuits that were filed by the estates of two merchant marines.  In 1989, a federal judge in Ohio granted the defendants (shipowners) two options – a jurisdiction transfer or waiving their personal jurisdiction defense.  The defendants never technically waived their defense, but also did not take action beyond requesting additional time to decide.

District Court Reinstates Asbestos Claims

The District Court’s decision to reinstate asbestos claims has created a split with the Sixth Circuit.  In 2017, Kalama v. Matson Navigation, determined that the federal judge originally ruling in the cases in 1989 was outside his authority when the decision was made.

The original case involved thousands of lawsuits filed in the Northern District of Ohio, using a theory of nationwide jurisdiction.  In 1989, the defendants challenged the jurisdiction, stating that consolidation in Ohio was improper since the shipowners had no direct ties to the state.  The judge agreed.  However, instead of granting a motion to dismiss the case, the judge stated that the case would be transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  The defendants requested additional time to decide between the transfer and waiving their jurisdictional defense.

In subsequent hearings, the defendants stated that they wanted to see how certain issues would be decided by the judge before making a decision, but the plaintiffs objected.  The judge told the defendants they must file their answer by the deadline if they decided to waive jurisdiction.

The defendants appealed, stating that they would file answers “under protest”.  Some defendants did file answers in 1990, but others failed to meet the deadline.  For a year following, no motions were made regarding jurisdiction.  Cases where the defendants did file their answers proceeded in the Ohio court system as if they had waived jurisdiction.  Other cases were transferred.

Claims Consolidated

In 1991, the asbestos claims were consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL).  The cases were consolidated in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania as MDL No. 875.  Defendants opposed, but did not raise personal jurisdiction defense.  MDL 875 initially included more than 121,000 individual cases.  Since 1991, 108,000 have been dismissed, settled, or remanded.  Around 13,000 cases are still pending.

After remaining stagnant for years, in 2011, three asbestos claims were reactivated by a different judge who was then presiding over the MDL.  The MDL Court issued to memorandum opinions in 2013 and 2014, concluding that several shipowners did not qualify for personal jurisdiction in Ohio, and that they had not waived their defense.

The three merchant mariners’ claims were dismissed based on a lack of personal jurisdiction.  All three dismissals were promptly appealed.  One appeal was ultimately dismissed because of conflicting claims made in state court outside the statute of limitations.  The state’s case was also dismissed.

The two remaining cases have been found to be valid, with the Court reversing the dismissals after finding that the defendants had, in fact, waived personal jurisdiction defenses.  In their opinion, the Court stated:

Barring any additional preliminary matters, these 30-year-old cases should at last proceed to adjudication on the merit.”

What this means for these plaintiffs and their loved ones is that, finally, resolution may finally be on the horizon.

Information About Asbestos

Asbestos is comprised of six silicate minerals.  Under a microscope, asbestos looks like strands of long fibers.  Asbestos has a number of properties that make it so appealing to manufacturers, including:

  • It is Inert – There is little to no chemical reaction between asbestos and other materials.
  • Non-Flammable – Asbestos is non-flammable. It will not burn or catch on fire.
  • Non-Corrosive – Asbestos fibers do not corrode in water, underground, or in soil.
  • Tensile Strength – For such an incredibly lightweight substance, asbestos is incredibly strong. It does not stretch or snap, and improves tensile strength in other materials.
  • Availability – Asbestos became incredibly popular due to its availability. Mining asbestos ore was easy.
  • Economical – Asbestos is very cost-effective. It is common, lightweight, and easy to use and ship.  It became popular due to the value extended all the way to consumers.

Many people don’t realize that there is more than one type of asbestos.  Researchers have identified two groups – one with serpentine fibers, and the other with amphibole fibers. These can be broken down and categorized as white, brown, or blue.

asbestos claims

The different types of asbestos were used for different purposes, and each have unique health hazards.

History of Asbestos Use

Asbestos is a material that has existed for centuries.  Archeologists have found evidence of asbestos in items dating back 8,000 years.  Ancient civilizations discovered that asbestos fibers improved products and reduced flammability.  Asbestos fibers were used to make weapons, household items, and even burial shrouds.

But it didn’t take long for the material to be deemed dangerous.  Historical reports document Pliny the Elder of Rome observing that slaves were dying due to lung issues.  Here in the United States, asbestos has been used widely since the 1800’s.  During the Industrial Revolution, raw asbestos became incredibly popular, and over the next century would be used to manufacture more than 3,000 products.

During World War II, asbestos use increased even more, as the product was inexpensive and multi-purpose.  Construction and shipbuilding accounted for more than half of all asbestos use.  Shipbuilders, in particular, used asbestos often to insulate ships, reduce flammability, and stabilize objects exposed to saltwater.  Shipbuilders were exposed to the fibers in products, and via airborne particles.  By the 1930’s, tens of thousands of shipbuilders, sailors, and dock workers had been exposed to the hazardous material, leaving little surprise that asbestos claims would follow years later.

The rise in injury and illness related to asbestos-containing products eventually led to the material being phased out by the 1980’s.  Sadly, millions of people had already been exposed to the potential carcinogen, and thousands had reported illness.  Even today, asbestos is still found in many homes, products, ships, and manufactured goods.  This is why asbestos claims continue to be filed each year by the thousands.

What are the Dangers of Asbestos?

We often hear that asbestos is dangerous, or that there are many asbestos claims related to illnesses or injury.  Sadly, most people don’t really know what the dangers are.  The most common health conditions associated with asbestos exposure include:

  • Mesothelioma – Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is only known to be caused by asbestos exposure. When asbestos becomes airborne, the particles can be inhaled into the lungs, and may move on to the esophagus or stomach.  These particles settle in body tissue and linings, causing irritation and scar tissue to form.  Asbestos may also cause tissue cells to mutate into mesothelioma cells, which grow and divide quickly, taking over healthy tissue with cancerous clumps.
  • Asbestosis – Asbestosis is a chronic inflammation of the lungs caused by scar tissue development. Asbestosis causes cough, wheezing, and chest pain.  It often advances to mesothelioma.
  • Pleural Effusion – Pleural effusion occurs when fluid accumulates in the area surrounding the lungs. This limits breathing and can cause discomfort.
  • Pleural Plaque – When particles settle and cause buildup of collagen on the membrane surrounding the lungs, it is called pleural plaque.
  • Pneumothorax – When free air collects in the chest cavity, it is called a pneumothorax. This condition often leads to lung collapse, and can be deadly.

Most of these conditions are diagnosed in older individuals who worked directly with products containing asbestos years earlier.  Mesothelioma is by far the most common health hazard related to asbestos exposure.  It is also the most dangerous.

asbestos claims

Facts about Asbestos

Here are some alarming facts about mesothelioma:

  • In most cases, symptoms of mesothelioma do not appear until 10-50 years after initial exposure.
  • Around 3,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed every year.
  • The prognosis for someone diagnosed with mesothelioma is 6-12 months.
  • Only 33 percent of mesothelioma patients live longer than one year after diagnosis.
  • The prognosis for mesothelioma is poor. Conventional treatments often are unsuccessful.
  • Since 1929, almost one million asbestos claims have been filed, including the more than 121,000 claims included in MDL 875.
  • Most asbestos claims and mesothelioma lawsuits are filed against companies that knew asbestos was dangerous, but failed to inform employees that there was a risk. These defendants commonly include:
    • Shipbuilders
    • Shipowners
    • Mining companies
    • Construction companies

As these facts show, asbestos claims commonly publicized on television are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Millions of lives have been impacted by the decision of companies to use a product that has been known to be hazardous for decades, if not centuries.

Learn More about Asbestos Claims and Your Rights

If you worked as a shipbuilder, sailor, or dock worker and have developed an illness due to exposure to asbestos, you may be one of thousands of people entitled to compensation.  Even decades later, you have the right to speak up and protect your legal rights.

There is no excuse for companies acting negligently by using products that are known to cause harm without warning employees.  If this happened to you, learn more about asbestos claims and whether you qualify to enter ongoing litigation.  Contact Maritime Injury Guide to speak with a maritime lawyer about your legal rights.  Fill out our online contact form to get started.