- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

These are trying times for trial lawyers looking forward to raking in the big bucks from manufacturers of asbestos and lead paint based on virtually non-existent scientific evidence. Groups like the Association of Trial Lawyers of American are reeling from the American Bar Association's (ABA) decision in favor of common-sense limits on asbestos lawsuits at a conference that concluded in Seattle last week.

At the ABA meeting, supporters of asbestos litigation reform made a powerful case that "Members of the asbestos bar have made a mockery of our civil justice system and have inflicted financial ruin by representing people with nothing more than an arguable finding on one x-ray," said a Chicago personal-injury lawyer with many relatives who worked in the asbestos industry.

The ABA's reform proposal set up medical standards for persons who have been exposed to asbestos but do not have cancer (and may not get it at all). While exposed individuals who do not have cancer would be barred from suing at the present time, they would be able to do so if they contracted the disease in the future.

According to a December 2002 study conducted by a team headed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and economist Peter Orszag of the Brookings Institution, since the late 1970s, 61 companies have filed for bankruptcy protection 35 of them since 1998 as a result of asbestos-related claims. The study, commissioned by the American Insurance Association, found that bankruptcies had led to a loss of as many as 60,000 jobs, cost each displaced worker an estimated $25,000 to $50,000 in wages during the course of his career and caused him to suffer more than $8,000 in losses from his 401(K).

Now, writing in the National Journal this week, noted legal scholar Stuart Taylor Jr. makes a compelling case that the next frontier for aspiring multimillionnaire trial lawyers to sow mischief is the so-called lead paint crisis. "One group deserves a special niche in the annals of those who have perverted the legal system for personal and political gain at the expense of everyone else: the politically connected trial lawyers who have signed up Rhode Island, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis and dozens of other governments, school districts and housing authorities to sue over health hazards associated with sales of lead pigment and paint for indoor use," Mr. Taylor says.

Mr. Taylor raises serious questions about the financial nature of Rhode Island's agreement with a South Carolina-based law firm, Ness Motley, one of the biggest political contributors in Rhode Island, to sue Sherwin-Williams, DuPont, Arco, and other manufacturers of lead paint. Mr. Taylor notes that, while Ness Motley stands to rack up megabucks in contingent fees, there is no evidence that properly maintained lead paint in school buildings or homes is a threat to anyone, and it is perfectly safe if left alone. But the state and the trial lawyers want to put together a scheme for removing lead paint at a cost of $10,000 per home from Rhode Island residences. By spewing particles into the air, however, they run the risk of creating a much larger safety hazard than if the paint were left alone.

If Mr. Taylor is correct, some trial lawyers will do anything for a buck even if public health is jeopardized as a result.

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