Huge Asbestos Trial to Begin in West Virginia

Mon September 30, 2002 - National Edition

A massive asbestos trial against some of the world’s largest companies, including ExxonMobil and Honeywell International, began in West Virginia, even as the case is being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court comprises the cases of 8,000 people who say they were exposed to the deadly agent. But approximately half of the 259 defendants have appealed to the high court, saying plaintiffs’ cases are so dissimilar that consolidating them infringes on their constitutional rights.

Defendants range from manufacturers to groups of employers and building owners, and cases are so numerous the trial was to be split into separate but simultaneous proceedings -- one for companies sued over product liability claims and the other for those sued for on-premises exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is a mineral that was widely used for fireproofing and insulation until the1970s, when its use was curtailed after scientists concluded that inhaled asbestos fibers could be linked to lung cancer and other diseases.

But asbestos-related sicknesses take years to materialize. And in the last three years, the number of asbestos lawsuits have been increasing, forcing about 50 U.S. corporations into bankruptcy because of related liabilities.

Nationwide, there are some 200,000 pending asbestos claims.