Time to ban the bundle

The Madison County Record Aug. 27, 2006, 11:24am

It didn't make Metro-East headlines or the nightly news, but it should have.

Earlier this month, the Michigan Supreme Court made it illegal for lawyers to "bundle" asbestos lawsuits, or package the claims of healthy plaintiffs with those who are actually sick.

The local angle here is that while asbestos claim bundling isn't exactly steel or horseradish, it is the special sauce that made Madison County big-shots like John Simmons so incredibly rich. It deserves a chapter in the River Bend history books, if only to explain for our descendants how our most well-to-do families-- the Simmons, the Bonos, the Coopers-- first happened upon their generational wealth.

Hitting a single company with hundreds of lawsuits from hundreds of plaintiffs at once, bundling is the most vaunted weapon in an asbestos lawyers' offensive game plan. Call it the legal equivalent of Student Body Right, in which the prospect of defending so many cases in front of hometown juries becomes immediately unimaginable.

Companies in the crosshairs are left to choose between settling, or spending tens of millions on trials that could potentially result in verdicts of hundreds of millions that effectively render them bankrupt. No matter how innocent, that's an uncertainty no CEO will risk taking.

Bundling comes in because reality isn't as dire as the plaintiff's lawyers wish it were. That is, there just aren't that many people who've become genuinely sick from asbestos-- not enough to enrich a 30-something lawyer to the point where he could buy a few baseball teams, for instance.

So like bartenders topping off vodka bottles with tap water, plaintiff's lawyers like to build bigger and scarier cases by stacking fifty healthy clients behind a single sick one. They couldn't prove even a small fraction at trial, of course. But they know they'll never have to. Settlement is the name, and big payout is the game.

Bundling is bad for justice and horrible for our business climate, but it's worse of all for plaintiff's genuinely stricken with asbestos cancer. Justice for them is slowed down to a crawl, while their lawyers maneuever to leverage their ailing meal ticket.

The practice is unethical and amoral. That's why Michigan banned it, and that's why our court should ban it, too.

More News