Need proof that class-action lawsuits have run amok?
Consider Laraine Pacheco, who hangs her hat in Arizona and still manages to oversee asbestos suits filed in Manhattan - for a cool $386,000 a year. She's a cog in what's become a hugely profitable and economically destructive legal industry built around compensating people injured by the carcinogenic insulating material.
Pacheco's role in this tort-lawyers' bonanza came to light last week in a New York Daily News story that described how she had invited attorneys to Tucson for settlement conferences at a gated community where they could enjoy swimming, spa treatments and discount shopping.
The invitation was plainly inappropriate because smart lawyers would never snub the person deciding their clients' fates. Pacheco belongs here in New York, working day and night in dim and dusty Manhattan Supreme Court to resolve the asbestos cases fairly and economically. Justice Helen Freedman, who appointed Pacheco special master over said cases, must so order.
That Freedman felt she needed a special master to help process asbestos claims is yet more evidence of how toxic this litigation has become for claimants, for U.S. industry and for the courts. For everyone, that is, except the class-action bar.
Once viewed as a miracle mineral, asbestos had myriad routine uses for decades. But in the 1970s, it was found to cause aggressive lung cancers and other respiratory diseases, touching off an explosion of lawsuits. To date, some 730,000 people have filed claims - 100,000 in 2003 alone.
Payouts totaling $70 billion have driven 70 companies into bankruptcy and crimped the businesses and share prices of hundreds of others - even as suits dragged on seemingly forever and legal bills skyrocketed. And, because asbestos-related illnesses can take 40 years to show symptoms, up to two million more claimants may yet come forward.
Last year, concerned about high costs and never-ending litigation, Congress sought to create a trust fund to settle all current and future claims. Companies that manufactured and used asbestos and their insurers would foot the bill in exchange for immunity from further litigation. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican, and then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle agreed on a $140 billion pool, but the deal blew up when trial lawyers and unions demanded a bigger fund.
Now, Sen. Arlen Specter, new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is trying again, using the same $140 billion figure. He's on the right track. A trust fund that gets the most money to the most deserving people quickly, gives certainty to businesses and eliminates the need for huge legal fees would be a marked step forward.