NYC asbestos suits padded with blameless defendants: study

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Asbestos-related lawsuits are clogging up the Big Apple’s court system — and forcing companies to needlessly shell out tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills, a new study has found.

The New York Civil Justice Institute found that some law firms wrongfully name companies as defendants in civil complaints when they really have no connection to the cancer-causing substance.

The lawsuits “drive up litigation costs for innocent defendants, contribute to corporate bankruptcies, congest court dockets, and slow case resolutions for plaintiffs,” study author and defense attorney Mary Margaret Gay said in a statement. “Nobody benefits from ‘sue first, discover later.’”

Gay analyzed a sample of 488 city cases from 2015 through 2020 — roughly 20 percent of the total asbestos-related cases in that time — finding that nearly 15,000 defendants comprising 1,302 companies were named in those cases.

The average asbestos case listed between 30 and 40 defendants, with one case from 2020 naming 106 defendants, the study said.

In the sample of Big Apple cases, the study found that 249 of the companies that were sued were ultimately dismissed, while more than 400 of the companies were tossed from over 50 percent of the cases they were named in.

“Nearly every company named as a defendant on complaints [in the city’s asbestos cases] could expect to be dismissed from a large percentage of the cases without paying the plaintiff any compensation,” the study found.

But the absolved companies are still forced to plunk down as much as “$20,000 to defend the case in which they should never have been named in the first place,” the study says, citing a 2018 article by James Lowery.

“Wrongfully named defendants start to incur legal costs on day one and have almost no way to extricate themselves quickly from litigation in which they do not belong,” said the study.

The niche litigation is prolific in the country — with specialized law firms peppering daytime TV with commercials urging mesothelioma patients to file claims with the promise of giant settlements.

Since 2014, more than 3,600 asbestos lawsuits have been filed in New York City courts alone, according to Megan Shockley, a senior manager at KCIC, which compiled the data from public records.

Asbestos litigation has forced 125 companies to go bankrupt as a result — giving them legal immunity but also potentially driving up more claims, the study suggested.

“The always-expanding litigation stems from an aggressive effort by asbestos plaintiff attorneys to find solvent defendants to replace bankrupt former asbestos defendants that are now immune,” the analysis said.

The study recommends that New York adopt laws similar to those already in place in four other states that require asbestos plaintiffs to include sworn information with their lawsuits proving there is a basis for including all defendants.

“Attorneys should fully understand the allegations in the cases they bring, but that isn’t happening if they’re suing companies that have no connection to their clients’ injuries,” said Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York executive director Tom Stebbins. “The data collected in this report clearly highlights the need for reform in this space.”

Johnson & Johnson has faced lawsuits from around the country filed by thousands of women who claim the company’s talc-based products — most notably its baby powder — were tainted with asbestos and contributed to their ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.

One of those cases resulted in a $4.7 billion jury award to 22 women. The massive award was reduced to $2.1 billion by an appeals court. The US Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear J&J’s bid to overturn the verdict.

In 2019, former Brooklyn resident Donna Olson won a $325 million verdict from a Manhattan jury after getting mesothelioma, allegedly from J&J’s baby powder. An appeal of that verdict is still pending.

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