- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

America's Big Three automakers are under assault by a small army of asbestos class-action lawyers. If the lawyers are successful, GM, Ford and Chrysler could face billions of dollars in extra costs over the next decade costs that will very likely drive sticker prices up and sales figures down and almost certainly result in tens of thousands of layoffs.
While the initial wave of asbestos litigation in the 1970s concentrated on major asbestos manufacturers, the asbestos lawyers of 2002 are targeting companies that played no role in manufacturing or selling asbestos. And they're doing so using thousands of plaintiffs who bear no symptoms of having a disease related to asbestos. The auto industry is a prime example of an industry being sued chiefly because it has deep pockets.
There's no doubt that automakers and their parts suppliers used asbestos, a naturally occurring fiber, whose heat-resistant qualities made it an excellent choice for brake pads and shoes as well as an all-purpose fire retardant. But they did so only after receiving assurances from asbestos manufacturers and, in some cases, the government, that that material was safe for a particular application. The use of asbestos in manufacturing began to wane in the late 1970s, when it was discovered that prolonged exposure to it could cause serious respiratory diseases such as asbestosis. The plaintiffs' lawyers turned toward the Big Three automakers and other so-called "innocent bystander" industries after asbestos manufacturers such as Johns Manville and W.R. Grace sought sanctuary in bankruptcy court.
Personal-injury lawyers' recruiting efforts produced swift results. In the last quarter of 2001, asbestos lawsuits against the Big Three soared to more than 3,500 a month. The growing threat was accentuated in February when a Manhattan jury returned a landmark $53 million verdict against GM, Ford, Chrysler and several of their brake suppliers on behalf of a Maine man who was first exposed to asbestos as a brake specialist in 1968. It was the largest amount ever awarded to single plaintiff in an asbestos suit. All told, more than 20,000 lawsuits are pending against the Big Three, and thousands more are lined up for such leading brake manufacturers as Honeywell International, Delphi Corp., Dana Corp. and Bosch. Financial analysts estimate that the cost of defending such lawsuits could easily top $2 billion.
Congress has attempted limit asbestos liability on 10 different occasions in the past two decades, but each time the personal-injury lawyers and their allies managed to scuttle the legislation. This may have something to do with the fact that Democrats alone received $77 million from personal-injury lawyers in the 2000 election cycle. It's important to remember who ultimately pays for all of this legalized extortion. It's the consumers.

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