EVERY STEP in the asbestos litigation confirms the impression that conventional product liability lawsuits are a terrible way to try to reach fair settlements. Now the Manville Corp. has sued the federal government to make a political point, and the point deserves consideration. If Manville bears blame for exposing workers to carcinogenic materials, it charges in its suit, then the government shares that blame. A fair and orderly system of compensation is going to require congressional legislation. You don't have to like Manville's past record to agree with it on that conclusion.

About half of the suits against Manville have been brought by people who worked with asbestos during World War II in shipyards that the government was running. Although these people may have later been afflicted by cancer, they cannot sue the government. They are limited to whatever modest benefits they can get in federal compensation payments. Many of these people have responded by suing Manville as the supplier of the asbestos.

Manville has settled some of these suits and is now in turn suing the government to recover the cost of those settlements. The amount of money directly involved is small. Manville wants to demonstrate that its practices were not limited to one company, or to private industry. It is not clear on the present record that in the 1940s anyone in government knew as much as Manville did about the effects of asbestos. But a lot of people knew that the stuff was not benign. During the war people took risks that they would not take today.

For the victims, the pursuit of equity through the courtroom is a highly uncertain and eccentric process. Some can recover heavy damages for exposure four decades ago, if the defendant is a company that is still in business and profitable. If not, the victims are out of luck. Some of the victims are able to prove that they worked with a certain product at a given time and place many years ago. Others can't prove it and, although they may suffer the same disease for the same reason, they cannot collect. The present method of compensation benefits mainly the lawyers, who by some estimates are getting perhaps two-thirds of the money now being poured into fighting and settling the asbestos victims' claims.

A better solution is a compensation pool fed by levies on the companies that exposed workers to asbestos and by the government. Some lawyers regard civil suits as the proper way to punish companies for their past transgressions. But the companies will pay very substantial damages in any case. It's important to find a better way to provide prompt and reliable help to the people who worked with asbestos many years ago and are now suffering for it.