State lawmakers are being asked to put new restrictions on asbestos lawsuits after a federal bankruptcy judge’s withering criticism earlier this year of plaintiffs’ attorneys in some of the cases.
Judge George Hodges in Charlotte said there was a “startling pattern of misrepresentation” by the attorneys that put a disproportionate share of blame on a single company, Garlock Sealing Technology. He said plaintiffs had denied knowing they had been exposed to other asbestos products, which had the effect of inflating Garlock’s culpability. But they later filed claims with asbestos trusts that have been set up during bankruptcy proceedings alleging that they had been exposed to those products.
Defense attorneys called the process of filing claims against multiple products one at a time double-dipping and have said they wanted to expose the practice in hopes that state legislators will stop it.
A provision addressing this has been inserted into a bill dealing with unrelated legal issues, Senate Bill 648, which a senate judiciary committee is scrutinizing. It would require those who sue to recover damages from exposure to asbestos to disclose all other claims they have filed or might file, and the disposition of those claims.
It would also force plaintiffs to turn over more information during the discovery process. And it would also delay trials for at least six months after a claim is filed and impose other scheduling restrictions.
Kirk Anderson, a civil defense attorney in Raleigh, said out-of-state law firms are scouring for companies to sue, because most of the asbestos claims have already driven the majority of companies into bankruptcy.
“This is about getting the evidence before the juries of North Carolina in a responsible manner,” Anderson told the committee on Thursday.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys say the bill would further harm those suffering from exposure to the material.
“The impact is to delay individuals from being able to have their day in court,” Greensboro lawyer Janet Ward Black told legislators.
Several members of the committee who are lawyers had concerns about the bill. They say current law already accomplishes the same protections and question whether the state can tell federal courts what to do.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican, said in the Garlock case some people recovered more than they should have and the defendant paid more than it should have. “That’s fraud,” he said. “Clearly, that’s wrong and shouldn’t happen. We have things in law to deal with that.”
The committee is expected to discuss the bill further this week.