Transparency Still Needed to Resolve Asbestos Claims on the Merits

Gordon & Rees Philadelphia partners William Shelley, Jacob Cohn, and Joseph Arnold recently wrote a follow-up article, “The Need for Further Transparency Between the Tort System and Section 524(g) Asbestos Trusts, 2014 Update – Judicial and Legislative Developments and Other Changes in the Landscape Since 2008,”  23 Widener L.J. 675 (2014).  The new article looks over the history of discovery of information arising from asbestos trust claims since their initial article in 2008.  Based on what has been uncovered in the last seven years, the authors explain the continuing need for complete disclosure of exposure and setoff information in asbestos cases, even though it would seem the issue should have been resolved.

In “The Need for Transparency Between the Tort System and Section 524(g) Asbestos Trusts,” 17 Norton J. of Bankr. L. & Practice 257 (2008), Shelley, Cohn, and Arnold described the need for increased transparency between the tort system and the asbestos bankruptcy system.  The 2008 article addressed how defendants in the tort system were facing increased claims and increased settlement demands following the bankruptcy of major players in the asbestos manufacturing business, even though the goal of bankruptcy was that trusts would be formed to continue to compensate claimants on behalf of these entities.  However, back in 2008 there were signs of manipulation of this system for financial gain, as illustrated by the case of Kananian v. Lorillard Tobacco Co.  In the Kananian case, the trial judge found persistent manipulation of evidence between civil cases and trust claims, which resulted in the revocation of pro hac vice privileges and findings of intentional and deceptive manipulation of the trust and discovery processes.  Based on this case, the authors urged for the implementation of procedures to ensure full discovery to avoid further such cases.

The 2014 trial findings by the Garlock court, seven years later, have shown that Shelley, Cohn, and Arnold were seeing the beginning, not the end, of this trend of manipulation.  Kananian was not an isolated instance.  After a three-month trial, Bankruptcy Judge George Hodges concluded that gasket manufacturer Garlock was resolving claims to avoid transaction costs, which were inflated by widespread concealment of facts by plaintiffs’ attorneys.  This concealment caused Garlock to resolve cases at settlement values far out of proportion to the connection, if any, between Garlock’s gaskets and disease causation.

Shelley et al.’s new article documents many other instances around the country in addition to the findings of the Garlock court, where evidence of similar practices have come to light.  Other trial judges have seen similar instances of concealment of evidence supporting bankruptcy claims in cases pending in their courtrooms.  See Peggy Abelman, “A Case Study from a Judicial Perspective: How Fairness & Integrity in Asbestos Tort Litigation Can Be Undermined by Lack of Access to Bankruptcy Trust Claims,” 88 Tul. L. Rev. 1185 (2014).

The article also outlines attempts by the trusts to block discovery by insurers, who have requested disclosure of information to ensure the hundreds of millions of dollars placed into trusts for asbestos claimants are actually paid to legitimate claimants.  Finally, the article outlines the failure of arguments by the trusts that their status as creations of the federal bankruptcy courts somehow shields them from the discovery process.

The fundamental premise laid down in Volkswagen of America v. Superior Court remains unchanged.  These claims, and all information that would support these claims, is discoverable.  Unfortunately, recent history has shown that asbestos plaintiffs have not disclosed this information fully and fairly.

Asbestos trusts pay billions of dollars each year in settlement of asbestos claimants.  When cases settle without full disclosure of facts, the legal system produces inconsistent results.  Cases are resolved based on avoidance of legal costs, rather than factual or legal liability.  The resolution of claims to avoid transaction costs out of proportion with actual fault violates the fundamental principle of our legal system that defendants should pay only when they are actually responsible.  Payments to avoid legal transaction costs do not serve the same goals as when claims are resolved to compensate for actual liability.

Unless we take these historical lessons to heart, allowing unchecked discovery abuse may lead to future bankruptcies of otherwise solvent companies.  The civil tort system should approximate the outcome the parties would reach in the absence of transaction costs; that is, payment only on a showing of actual liability, based on full disclosure.  The historical facts that caused exposures are known to plaintiffs and their lawyers, and all such facts should be part of required disclosures early in any asbestos case.  Further, there must be penalties for late disclosure.  Efficient and full discovery in the tort system of all sources of exposure is the only way to ensure that claims filed in the tort system reflect fair compensation, and preserve assets for future claimants.