The First Legal Battle
The first legal battle against the asbestos companies took place in 1929/30 when American workers sued asbestos companies for negligence in failing to maintain safe workplaces, but the big companies settled those claims wihtout them going to trial. Out-of-court settlements were reached in which the plaintiffs’ lawyers were required to agree not to participate in any new legal actions, and so public knowledge of asbestos dangers was suppressed. By the early 1940s this first battle had been largely lost to the companies.
The silence was shattered in 1964 when evidence emerged of asbestos-related disease in workers using asbestos products. Over the next fifteen years American lawyers used product liability law to prosecute the companies for disease among insulation workers. Product liability makes a seller liable to a consumer for failure to provide adequate warning of reasonably foreseeable risk in using the seller’s product.
It took until 1973 for a judgement in favour of a worker to be confirmed on appeal; what then followed has been described by the investigative journalist Paul Brodeur as ‘the greatest avalanche of toxic-tort litigation in the history of American jurisprudence’.
In a determined research effort, US lawyers unearthed sensational evidence of the long cover up of the asbestos-disease link. By 1980 asbestos had become the USA’s largest product liability field.
In Britain litigation began in the mid-1960s and, as in the USA, increased to a flood in the following decades.