Six degrees of asbestos separation

The Madison County Record Feb. 26, 2011, 9:00am

In the movie Six Degrees of Separation, Will Smith plays a young con man who shows up unexpectedly at the home of a wealthy Manhattan couple, claiming to have been robbed in Central Park, and convinces them that he is the son of Sidney Poitier and a close friend of their two children attending Harvard. They lend him money and put him up for the night, only to discover that he is not Poitier's son, nor a friend of their children.

Eventually, they learn he has pulled similar scams on other wealthy East Side couples by exploiting remote connections to people they know.

Smith's scam is based on the theory of six degrees of separation, which holds that on average we are approximately six steps away or less from being connected in some fashion to any other person on earth, a theory that seems to underlie a new approach to asbestos litigation.

Just as suits against tobacco manufacturers were expanded to include nonsmokers claiming injury from "secondhand" smoke, so too with asbestos suits. Such suits were originally filed by plaintiffs with direct exposure to asbestos on the job site but now are being filed by relatives of the same, who claim injury from exposure to the fibers brought home on the clothing of those workers.

The wife that did her husband's laundry, the children that hugged him when he got home, the live-in unemployed brother-in-law who watches TV all day while relaxing in his lounge chair – these now are potential victims of "take-home" asbestos exposure.

Or they could not be, depending on a ruling forthcoming from the Illinois Supreme Court. At issue is whether or not the estate of a woman, now deceased, can pursue her claim against CSX Transportation for the illness she claimed to have contracted from exposure to asbestos fibers on her husband's work clothes.

Theoretically, everyone everywhere has some remote connection to someone with asbestos exposure. Let's not encourage the whole world being able to file suit in Madison County.

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