A History of Asbestos Litigation

Lawsuits, regulations, and other litigation concerning asbestos-related injuries or damages is perhaps the longest and largest mass tort in the history of the United States. The first personal injury lawsuit was over 40 years ago, and since that time, related litigation has continued to evolve as previously-unknown causes of hazardous exposure are revealed, new diseases and conditions are diagnosed, and new classes of items are discovered.

Here is a very brief outline of the history of asbestos usage and the pattern of related litigation in the United States.

2500 BC – Earliest recorded application, used to strengthen pots and cooking utensils. From this point until the modern era, use of the mineral class is sporadic and episodic. Most applications focus on its use in fabricating a fireproof textile. For example, Khosrau II, a Persian King in the late sixth century and early seventh century, had a napkin that he could clean by throwing it into a fire.


61 – 114 A.D. Pliny the Younger recorded that slaves working with the mineral became sick.

1850′s – First large-scale production attempts. Merchants in Italy tried to produce both cloth and paper that was made primarily of the mineral. At that time, there was no receptive market.

1858 – Fibrous anthophyllite was mined for use as an insulating product by the Johns Company, which today is known as Johns Manville.

1871 – The Patent Asbestos Manufacturing Company was established in Glascow.

1878 – The Jeffrey mine in Québec produced over 50 times, making it the world’s largest asbestos mine. By the 1890′s, production had already begun in the Russian Empire, Northern Italy, and South Africa.

1890′s – Widespread applications are found, including fire-retardant coatings, fireplace cement, bricks, pipes, concrete, insulation, flooring, roofing, drywall joint compound, and heat-resistant gaskets.

Why is this early production history of asbestos so important? It is because there was a relatively very short time span between its widespread production and use and the discovery that it was toxic. For companies that continued to use the mineral – especially for those who did so without taking the proper safety precautions for its workers and its clients – this fact is just another damning indictment documenting corporate greed.


Growing Health Concerns

By the early 1900′s, it was already evident that towns where the mineral was mined were marked by a much-higher-than-average incidence of lung problems and early deaths.

1899 – Dr. Montague Murray reported ill health that could result from exposure.

1900 – An autopsy of a man who had died from pulmonary fibrosis discovered mineral traces in the man’s lungs. The man had worked in an asbestos textiles factory for over 14 years.

1902 – Included as a “harmful industrial substance” in Britain. France followed suit in 1906, followed by Italy in 1908.

1906 – The first officially-documented related death was recorded.

1908 – The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) was created to compensate and protect railroad workers that were injured on the job – this coverage includes asbestos exposure.

1924 – First diagnosis of death by asbestosis, to a woman who had worked seven years in a factory that spun the raw material fiber into yarn. Exposure to the hazardous mineral was “beyond a reasonable doubt, the primary cause of the fibrosis of the lungs, and therefore of death“, according to the pathologist, Dr. William Edmund Cooke.

1929 – Employees of the Johns-Manville Corporation – The world leader in manufacturing products which contained asbestos – started to claim disability due to lung disease. In the next few decades, the company would face several thousand lawsuits related to injuries such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and malignant mesothelioma.

1930 – Asbestosis definitively linked to the long-term installation of the hazardous mineral dust. A study reported that 66% of asbestos workers employed more than 20 years suffered from the disease.

1931 – First use of the term mesothelioma.

1932 – Enactment of the first Asbestos Industry Regulations.

Why are these dates important? It proves that officials in the industry knew of the dangers since the 1930s, but chose to ignore the hazards and conceal any official findings from the public.

For example –

  • In 1930, Johns-Manville printed an internal report citing published medical reports concerning the fatalities among exposed workers.
  • In 1932, a letter to Eagle-Picher called the mineral’s dust “one of the most dangerous dusts to which man is exposed.”
  • In 1933, MetLife determined that almost one-third of all workers in a Johns-Manville facility had asbestosis.
  • That same year, officials from that company settled 11 lawsuits by employees stricken with asbestosis.
  • In 1934, two companies, Johns-Manville and Raybestos-Manhattan fraudulently changed an article to downplay the effects of the hazardous dust.
  • In 1935, officials from both of those companies pressured the editor of Asbestosmagazine to censor any articles about asbestosis.
  • In 1936, a consortium of companies sponsored health research, on onecondition – that the companies had complete control over when and how the research could be disclosed.
  • In 1942, Owens-Corning circulated an internal memo quoting medical literature about the “lung and skin hazards ofasbestos“.
  • In 1944, MetLife reported 42 cases of asbestosis among 195 miners.
  • In 1951, companies working with the mineral deleted all mentions of cancer before they would allow research is sponsored to be published.
  • In 1952, the medical director for Johns-Manville made the recommendation to attach warning labels to the company’s products. His recommendation was not heeded.
  • In 1953, the safety director of National Gypsum recommended that acoustic plaster mixers should wear respirators because of the presence of the mineral in the product.

The United States shipbuilding industry that arose during World War II resulted in toxic, and eventually terminal, exposure to approximately 100,000 people so far. Because of use as an insulator, asbestos was used on pipes, engines, turbines, and boilers, necessitating thousands of tons.

What did these massive amounts mean? 14 shipyard workers out of every thousand died of mesothelioma, and many more of asbestosis. In some shipbuilding areas, the malignancy occurrence is over seven times the national average.

In postwar America, the hazardous mineral was widely used in construction – drywall/joint compound, plaster, textures, roofing materials, flooring tiles and adhesives, acoustic ceilings, caulk, pipes, and insulating boards, while in the automobile industry, brake discs, pads, and shoes used chrysotile fibers.

The Modern-Day

1970 – The Clean Air Act passes, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency as the regulating authority.

1973 – An insulation worker wins the first major lawsuit concerning injuries suffered due to exposure.

1977 – Hidden papers proving that large corporations try to cover up the associated health hazards are presented in a court case against manufacturers. These documents became known as the Sumner Simpson Papers.

1981 – All companies must release information to the EPA about any hazardous mineral content in their products.

1982 – Johns-Manville files for bankruptcy as a result to numerous lawsuits.

1988 – The Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust, designed to deal with increasing lawsuit liabilities, is established.

1989 – The Ban and Phase Out Rule is introduced by the EPA, banning many asbestos products.

1991 – The ban is overturned, leaving only asbestos flooring, rollboard, and paper prohibited.

1994 – The World Health Organization recognizes mesothelioma as a disease caused by exposure.

2001 – The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers sends tons of hazardous dust and debris into the air.

2002 – Over 8000 law firms file approximately 730,000 claims, seeking $70 billion from defendants.

2003 – The largest verdict for a single plaintiff is awarded – $250 million.

2006 – The Owens Corning Fiberboard Asbestos Personal Injury Trust is created.

2006 – The Armstrong World Industries Asbestos Personal Injury Settlement Trust is created.

2009 – The ASARCO LLC Asbestos Personal Injury Settlement Trust is created.

2010 The state of Washington bans the use of the hazardous mineral in automobile brakes.

2013 – The Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act (FACT) passed the House of Representatives, and if it becomes law, will hamper or even deny any efforts at obtaining compensation for individuals suffered from related diseases.

Obviously, asbestos and its hazards have a long and well-documented history. It is also obvious that all of the particular pieces are always in motion – the medical science, the victims, the companies themselves, and the legislation.

If you or any of your loved ones have suffered as a result of exposure, you need to speak to legal professionals who understand all of these disparate factors and how they relate to each other and to your particular case.

  1. Time is not on your side. In addition to the demands imposed by these terrible physical maladies, legislation like the FACT Act can threaten your ability to seek justice.

Leave a Comment