Henry Ward Johns started experimenting with asbestos in 1879, at age 21. His work laid the foundation of Johns Manville, a great American business. It also killed him.
A coroner attributed Johns' death at age 40 in 1898 to "dust phthisis pneumonitis." But hindsight makes obvious what the cororner missed--Johns had inhaled asbestos fibers, which irritated his lungs and eventually destroyed them.
Nineteenth century doctors did not recognize a connection between asbestos and lung disease, although circumstantial evidence had offered itself 2,000 years ago.
Nobles of the Roman Empire impressed dinner guests by throwing asbestos napkins into fireplaces and bringing the napkins out whole and white. Roman historians noted that some slaves coughed a lot and died young. These slaves had woven asbestos napkins.
Medical research on the effects of asbestos exposure began in 1924. In 1927, doctors identified lung damage from asbestos as a disease. They called it asbestosis.
A foreman in the weaving department of a Massachusetts asbestos factory filed a worker’s compensation claim in 1927. The state awarded compensation.
Other early examples include:
That decision curtailed litigation until 1957, when a worker sued Johns Manville. The plaintiff and the company settled in 1959 for $35,000.
The multiple defendant strategy backfired. A judge dismissed the suit, saying the widow could not prove whose products her husband had used.
Asbestosis suits increased. More and more plaintiffs named multiple defendants.
The company appealed under the statute of limitations. The appellate court ruled that the statute started to run when harm manifested itself, adding that when harm manifested itself was a jury question.
The company’s owners estimated that their liabilities exceeded their net worth and their insurance limits combined. Johns Manville declared bankruptcy.
In the next 20 years, 77 more companies attributed bankruptcies to asbestos liability.
According to Barry Castleman, author of "Asbestos – Medical and Legal Aspects," published by Aspen, about $70 billion in damages have been paid, with projections of ultimate payments of $200 billion.
According to "Forecasting Product Liability Claims," a textbook published by Springer, plaintiffs have sued more than 6,000 companies in virtually every industry.
The book says the number of defendants per case grew from 20 in the 1980s to 60 or 70 in the 1990s.
At the end of 2002, the book says, about 250,000 asbestos claims were pending in state and federal courts.