As science learns more about the causes of human disabilities, more people will probably seek compensation from the sources they believe contributed to their ailments. In turn, these contributory sources -- perhaps a producer or user of toxic chemicals, a doctor or other medical provider -- will look to their insurance companies to pay off claims. Since these claims can rapidly mount to millions of dollars, it's a safe bet that everyone involved will end up in court where, after much delay, the biggest winners will be lawyers.
That's been the model so far for the handling of thousands of claims by workers exposed to asbestos fibers. Now, however, officials of 50 manufacturing and insurance firms have agreed to set up a novel Asbestos Claims Facility that promises faster and fairer treatment for injured workers, an end to quarreling between producers and their insurers, and relief from the threat of bankruptcy for both types of firms. Whether or not it works perfectly, it should be an improvement over court proceedings that have already cost producers and their insurers an estimated $1 billion -- of which only 37 percent has gone to injured workers.
It took 21/2 years for the firms to work out ways to divide up the costs of expected claims. A major difficulty is that, as is often the case with toxic exposure, a worker's ailment may not be evident for many years after exposure. The worker may not know which firm produced the asbestos that injured him, and the producer may not know which insurance was in force at the time of the injury. As a result of these uncertainties, some workers have received huge settlements in court while others with nearly identical cases have received little or nothing.
The new claim facility won't succeed if workers aren't satisfied with their awards and decide to press their cases further in court, as they may. It would be better if the major asbestos producer, Johns-Manville, were allowed by the bankruptcy court now handling its affairs to join the agreement. But the facility will offer workers a rapid, one-stop settlement with the assurance of uniform handling of cases.
The handling of asbestos cases isn't necessarily a good model for other toxic-exposure cases where the link between exposure and illness is less clear or where there may be multiple causes -- including personal habits and hereditary factors -- for a given ailment. But society needs to begin exploring ways to provide reasonable compensation without inundating the courts or driving industries and their insurers out of business.