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Some Things Still Ring True After Four Decades of Asbestos Litigation

Asbestos Litigation Steven Kazan 1985This month Kazan Law celebrates four decades of obtaining justice for asbestos victims.  To commemorate the occasion, we are taking a look at the firm’s history to participate in our own unique way in social media’s Throwback Thursday. In my last post, I talked about how I founded Kazan Law in March 1974 when as a young attorney I found myself representing dying workers. They had been exposed to asbestos because of a company whose name now has become synonymous with asbestos litigation:  Johns Manville.  It was a landmark case that set a legal precedent and launched me on my journey of handling over a thousand of asbestos litigation cases.

In the firm’s archives, I found an interview I gave to the California edition of the Daily Journal, a legal community newspaper, in 1985. Some of what I said then about asbestos litigation still rings true now.  So for Throwback Thursday, here are several excerpts:

Working with asbestos-related clients is both depressing and rewarding, according to Oakland attorney Steven Kazan who heads one of the Bay Area’s major plaintiff’s asbestos practices.  “As much as you try to retain a sense of detachment, you get involved,” said Kazan, the founder of Kazan & McClain. But helping to obtain financial security for asbestos victims dying of chronic disease is rewarding.

Still true.  Except today it is Kazan, McClain, Satterley & Greenwood, A Professional Law Corporation.

Kazan said his firm will look at about 1,800 possible cases this year, 1,000 of them asbestos-related and take only about 100 of them, the article states.

Factors Kazan uses in evaluating potential cases include:

  • the degree of disability

  • the evidence of asbestos exposure

  • potential monetary damages

Also still true.

Kazan said he sometimes advises people with minor asbestos-related problems to wait and see if their illness progresses to avoid settling for an amount of money that will not cover their medical expenses if their condition worsens.

Still good advice.

Although exposure to asbestos has greatly decreased due to public awareness of its dangers, may people have been exposed but not yet become ill and Kazan predicted that he won’t have to change his practice much in the near future.

“For the next 10 to 15 years there will be a substantial volume of asbestos litigation,” Kazan said.

Sadly, this also has proved to be true.  In fact, it’s been more than 25 years and the need to help obtain financial security for asbestos victims continues to drive myself and my associates forward in our work more than ever.

Veteran Science Writer Defends Asbestos Victims’ Rights in the New York Times

asbestos industry rebuttalThe community of asbestos victims’ advocates although international in scope is a relatively small one.  Most asbestos victims’ advocates are family members of asbestos victims or those of us involved in meeting their legal or medical needs. As a result most of what is written about asbestos and asbestos victims appears in publications and/or websites that are offshoots of these groups.

That’s why it is worth noting when someone goes to bat for asbestos victims in an important major media outlet like the New York Times.  Especially when that someone is a national science writer on environmental health hazards who has focused on asbestos.

The New York Times recently published an important letter about asbestos written by Paul Brodeur, an investigative science writer and author.  It appeared both in the paper’s internet and print editions.

In the letter, Brodeur states, “An estimated 10,000 Americans are dying of asbestos disease each year; before the asbestos tragedy has run its course, an estimated 500,000 Americans will have died of the disease.”

Brodeur is a former staff writer for The New Yorker magazine where the zeal for fact-checking is legendary.  So it is reasonable to presume scientific accuracy in Brodeur’s work.  No friend of industries that risk people’s lives for profit, Brodeur  also exposed the dangers of household detergents, the depletion of the ozone layer and electromagnetic radiation from power lines when these issues emerged during the 1970s and 1980s.

But a major focus of his environmental hazard reporting has been on asbestos. Over a twenty-year period, he researched and wrote four books about asbestos:

  • Asbestos & Enzymes (1972)
  • Expendable Americans (1974)
  • The Asbestos Hazard (1980)
  • Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial (1985)

So recently, when an asbestos industry supporter disparaged asbestos victims in a New York Times op ed, Brodeur felt compelled to write a rebuttal.

In his letter, he says the industry supporter “makes light of a claimant’s assertion that she was subjected to asbestos exposure because she lived in a house with relatives who worked with asbestos, but numerous studies link household exposure (often called “bystander exposure”) with asbestos disease.”

He further cites the investigation by Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, former director of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Environmental Sciences Laboratory, and Dr. E. Cuyler Hammond, former vice president for epidemiology and statistics of the American Cancer Society, “… who showed that nonsmoking asbestos workers died of lung cancer seven times more often than people in the general population, and whose calculations suggested that asbestos workers who smoked had more than 90 times the risk of dying of lung cancer as men who neither worked with asbestos nor smoked.”

 

Berkshire Hathaway Subsidiary Settles Insurance Dispute With Ford

Kiewit Tower, the location of Berkshire's corporate offices in Omaha, Nebraska

Kiewit Tower, the location of Berkshire’s corporate offices in Omaha, Nebraska

Kazan Law has just learned that in a surprise twist to asbestos litigation news we recently reported, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary has suddenly settled a major outstanding insurance claim. The unexpected settlement follows in the wake of a wave of negative publicity and lawsuits surrounding Berkshire Hathaway-owned companies’ alleged intentional delay in paying insurance claims including those to asbestos victims.

“Even (Warren) Buffet reacts to press coverage,” J. Robert Hunter, head of the Consumer Federation of America’s insurance division and former Texas insurance commissioner, was quoted as saying in a Scripps News update of its original coverage of the famous philanthropist’s apparent profiteering at the expense of victims waiting to be compensated for corporate wrongdoing.

Famous tycoon and philanthropist Warren Buffet heads the Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway. As the chairman, CEO and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, he is consistently ranked among the world’s wealthiest people.

Although the only settlement publicly announced at this time is with Ford Motor Co. for unpaid claims over rollover deaths, it can be hoped that resolution for mesothelioma-stricken victims of asbestos exposure will follow.

Scripps previously obtained sworn testimony from a former Berkshire claims executive who criticized Berkshire subsidiary National Indemnity and its claim-handling arm Resolute Management Inc. for reportedly delaying and denying claims to asbestos-caused cancer sufferers and others.

National Indemnity, according to Scripps’ coverage, agreed to take on tens of billions of dollars in “so-called long-tail insurance risk” from major insurers including Lloyds of London and American Insurance Group (AIG).

“The long-tail policies cover asbestos and other health hazards that might take years or decades to develop into illness or a covered claim,” the report states.

Berkshire was entitled to invest the money until it had to pay out a claim but sought, according to allegations, to extend its ‘float” of the funds to boost its bottom line instead of paying on claims, including those of asbestos victims.

Ford announced that it received two million more than it had asked for in its settlement, walking away with $22.1 million.  Representatives for National Indemnity disputed Ford’s claim but would not reveal any settlement figures. The case had been set for trial later this month in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Companies Accused of Profiting By Denying, Delaying Asbestos Victims’ Payments

Warren BuffettAsbestos victims were in the news this week when major media sources reported that there are dozens of lawsuits claiming that subsidiaries of the company Berkshire Hathaway are further victimizing them by intentionally withholding their payments.  Why?  To boost the company’s bottom line by denying and delaying claims owed to those dying from the asbestos-caused lung cancer.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc, headquartered in Omaha, Neb., is the company owned by Warren Buffet, considered the most successful investor of the 20th century.  As the chairman, CEO and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, he is consistently ranked among the world’s wealthiest people.

An investigation by Scripps News, a syndicated media service, stated in a report carried by many media outlets including The Wall Street Journal and ABC News,  that Berkshire Hathaway has become “one of the most powerful forces in asbestos and pollution litigation in the world.” And not in a good way.

Apparently, through 25 known deals, Berkshire’s Reinsurance Division took over the insurance risk for asbestos claims from major insurance firms. American Insurance Group (AIG), CNA Financial Group and Lloyd’s of London are among those who paid Berkshire to take on tens of billions of dollars in future asbestos and pollution claims that they had been holding.

Berkshire allegedly invested the money, known as “float” for a very profitable income.  And supposedly, the company did not want the bonanza to end even if it was at the expense of the sick and dying asbestos victims who are suffering because of asbestos exposure in their workplace.

Buffett is quoted as celebrating this strategy in his well-known annual letters to shareholders. In his 2009 message he wrote, “Our float has grown from $16 million in 1967, when we entered the business, to $62 billion at the end of 2009.” By 2012, that number had grown to $73 billion.

According to media reports, major companies with outstanding asbestos claims such as Ford Motor Co. and Estee Lauder Inc. sued alongside asbestos victims to get claims paid so they can be reimbursed for fines, legal fees and payments of injury claims.

Berkshire officials refused to reveal to Scripps how many bad-faith allegations against its subsidiaries have been lodged or settled.  Berkshire executive Ajit Jain said his division pays $1.4 billion annually for asbestos claims and expenses. And “as is the case with any insurance company, the vast majority of claims are settled without trials,” he said.

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