What will you tell a client who walks into your office tomorrow with the following story? He is 62 years old, married and retired last year after 35 years in the construction industry. From 1955 to 1965 he worked installing asbestos-containing insulation manufactured by two companies whose names he remembers. At that time he had no idea the products were dangerous, and he was never warned by the manufacturers.

Two weeks ago he was told by his doctor that he had mesothelioma, an invariably fatal cancer of the lining of his lung.’ His doctor told him the cancer was caused by the asbestos insulation he installed back in the 50’s and 60’s. He was also told he had between one and two years to live and there was nothing the doctor could do except give him medication which would hold off the pain for a while. He comes in with documents proving that these companies knew in 1955 that asbestos caused cancer in workmen applying asbestos-containing insulation products. He and his wife are asking what he can expect if he sues the companies who are killing him.

Thanks to the liability insurance industry, you can tell him that in all likelihood the most he can receive as compensation for his pain and suffering, the taking of 15 years of his life, his death and his soon-to-be widow’s loss is approximately $125,000. You can also tell him that since the insurance companies representing the asbestos manufacturers know this is the most he could get after an expensive and time-consuming trial, they are not likely to offer him more than $100,000 to settle his case at the eve of trial. (They will not settle earlier since they are earning interest on their money.) Then you can tell him that your fee is a third of the compensation and you expect paid out costs (necessitated by insurance lawyer resistance to his claim) to be $5,000-$10,000 up to the time of trial. Thus, all he and his wife could realistically net is around $60,000, or about $4,000 for each year of his life taken from him. If you think it will make him feel better, you can tell him that is a fraction of what just one “tort reform” lobbyist earned in much less than a year for helping lobby through this change in Washing- ton law. . .

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Leonard W. Schroeter & William J. Rutzick, “Tort Reform”–Being an Insurance Company Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry, 22 Gonz. L. Rev. 31 (1986-87).

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