In a move that could signal a judicial tug-of-war over who will control tens of thousands of asbestos-related personal-injury cases, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas D. Lambros yesterday ordered that virtually all of the cases be combined into a single class-action lawsuit.
State and federal judges have been in a quandary over how to tackle the huge backlog of cases filed across the country on behalf of thousands of shipyard employees, industrial workers and others who contracted often-fatal lung diseases from contact with the insulating material, which was used from the 1940s to the 1980s.
Lawyers representing the victims in these cases are expected to challenge Lambros's order in federal appeals court, sources said yesterday. Legal sources said it is not clear that Lambros, who sits in Cleveland, has the authority to take such action.
In Brooklyn last week, U.S. District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who is hearing hundreds of asbestos-related cases that involve workers from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, suggested that the plaintiffs consider a class-action suit.
Sources close to that case said yesterday that Lambros's order would preempt Weinstein, or any other judge, from taking control of the cases unless a national ad hoc committee of judges recommends otherwise. Weinstein declined to comment on the order.
Lambros's order makes it clear he will not take over all the cases in his Cleveland courtroom, but will leave them in the courts where they were filed while the ad hoc committee finds a solution.
The ad hoc committee is composed of judges with the largest numbers of asbestos cases on their dockets. Many of those judges agree that the cases are clogging court dockets, causing a national judicial disaster.
"It is the clear purpose of this order to establish a ... class which does not supersede the jurisdiction of any court in the United States except upon the decision of the judges," Lambros's order said.
Legal experts yesterday called the order "mind-blowing" and unprecedented. No such attempt to gather cases from state and federal courts into one class action has ever succeeded, they said.
A normal class-action suit depends on the consent of the members of the class -- an unlikely scenario when people filing the suits are looking for the biggest possible awards.
A number of attorneys for asbestos victims met last week in Chicago, according to one source, fearing that Weinstein might consolidate a number of asbestos cases from across the country into one suit in Brooklyn. That would be an unwelcome move to the lawyers, whom Weinstein has criticized for their high fees, sources said.
"Weinstein is the last judge they want a class action tried under," said one source close to the case.
Weinstein, an activist judge who handled the cases filed by Vietnam veterans exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange, still has jurisdiction over hundreds of cases involving the Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust. Manville Corp., once the country's largest asbestos manufacturer, established the trust in 1987 to settle thousands of asbestos cases.
Last week, Weinstein ordered that trust settlements and payments to attorneys be frozen while the trust is restructured. The trust, after settling more than 20,000 cases, has run out of cash to pay 130,000 other cases that are pending.
People who still have claims pending have criticized the trust for paying claimants on a first-come, first-served basis. Experts estimate that of the more than $974 million the trust has paid out, more than one-third has gone for attorneys' fees.
Manville is only one of several hundred defendants in asbestos-related cases, which constitute the largest block of personal-injury suits in the country. Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Owens-Illinois Inc. and other companies also have been named as defendants. But Lambros's order said that together, all those companies still don't have enough money to pay all of the justified asbestos claims -- a statement that surprised many of the lawyers involved with the cases.