Charleston, Sept. 22 (Reuters): A massive asbestos trial against some of the world’s largest companies, including ExxonMobil and Honeywell International, begins in West Virginia this week, even as the case is being challenged before the US Supreme Court.
The lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court comprises the cases of 8,000 people who say they were exposed to the deadly agent. But about half of the 259 defendants have appealed to the high court, saying plaintiffs’ cases are so dissimilar that consolidating them infringes on their constitutional rights.
“The trial plan does not appear to be in the same universe as the due process clause in the Constitution,” said Walter Dellinger, a primary lawyer for the companies.
“What gets lost in a mass trial with this number of defendants and this number of plaintiffs is that a lot of plaintiffs aren’t sick and a lot of the companies have nothing to do with asbestos.”
Defendants range from manufacturers to groups of employers and building owners, and cases are so numerous that the trial was to be split into separate but simultaneous proceedings — one for companies sued over product liability claims and the other for those sued for on-premises exposure to asbestos.
Jury selection was due to begin on Tuesday, with oral arguments starting as early as Wednesday before Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht for product liability cases and McDowell County Circuit Judge Booker Stevens for premises-exposure cases.
Asbestos is a mineral that was widely used for fireproofing and insulation until the 1970s, when its use was curtailed after scientists concluded that inhaled asbestos fibres could be linked to lung cancer and other diseases.
But asbestos-related sicknesses take years to materialise. And in the last three years, the number of asbestos lawsuits have been increasing, forcing about 50 US corporations into bankruptcy because of related liabilities. Nationwide, there are some 200,000 pending asbestos claims.
Defense attorneys complain that West Virginia is the venue for this week’s trial because state law gives great latitude to outsiders who want to sue companies that operate within the state. Some show no signs of illness. And as many as 5,000 plaintiffs are from out of state, the defense estimates.
But plaintiffs’ attorneys disagree. “These are steel workers and construction workers who have worked in West Virginia. If they didn’t live here, they worked here,” said Charleston lawyer Scott Segal. “These are thousands of people who spent the latter part of the 20th century making America what it is.”
Many of the companies being sued did not make asbestos but used it in a range of products, such as car brake linings.
Sources close to the proceedings suggested out-of-court settlements may have whittled the number of defendants down dramatically.
Last week, the plaintiffs scored an early victory when US Chief Justice William Rehnquist rejected requests for a delay in the start of the trial from defendants ExxonMobil, Honeywell and Owens-Illinois Inc.
The companies wanted trial proceedings stayed until the Supreme Court could rule on their appeal. The US high court, currently in recess, is expected to consider the defendants’ appeal just before the start of its new term on October 7.
At issue in the appeal was a decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia that endorsed the consolidation of thousands of product-liability claims into a single proceeding.