The Unreasonable Success of Asbestos Litigation

In asbestos litigation, the plaintiffs’ bar has apparently invented a perpetual motion machine that feeds on outrage that will never run out. Still, lawyers who have not filled their wallets with legal fees from asbestos cases sometimes attempt to replicate the machine. For the most part, the imitators have failed.

What accounts for the unreasonable success of asbestos litigation? Unlike pharmaceutical litigation, exposure does not require a prescription. Although asbestos insulators and applicators experienced the most exposure, other trades and occupations worked with, or near, asbestos materials. Anecdotal testimony of exposure suffices in almost every case. Add para-occupational exposure, and the sky’s the limit for the class of potential plaintiffs. See Lester Brickman, “Fraud and Abuse in Mesothelioma Litigation,” 88 Tulane L. Rev. 1071 (2014); Peggy Ableman, “The Garlock Decision Should be Required Reading for All Trial Court Judges in Asbestos Cases,” 37 Am. J. Trial Advocacy 479, 488 (2014).

Then there is the range of diseases and disorders attributable to asbestos. Excessive exposure to asbestos minerals cause non-malignant pleural plaques and thickening, as well as lung fibrosis, asbestosis. Some asbestos minerals cause mesothelioma, and despite a differential in potency among some of the minerals (between amosite and crocidolite), the general and specific causation of mesothelioma is often uncontested. Furthermore, lung cancer in the presence of asbestosis may be the result of interaction of asbestos exposure and cigarette smoking. Plaintiffs’ counsel and The Lobby have expanded the list of attributable diseases to include non-pulmonary cancers, only to find some defendants willing to pay money on these claims as well.

In addition to the ease of claiming, or manufacturing, exposure, and the willing cooperation of the occupational medical community in supporting medical causation, asbestos litigation is a lightning rod for moral outrage in the courtroom. Plaintiffs claim that “industry” knew about the hazards of asbestos, including its carcinogenicity, long before warnings appeared. Defending the knowledge claim requires nuanced explanation of shifting standards for establishing causality as epidemiology developed and was applied to putative asbestos-related cancer outcomes, as well as changing views about the latencies of asbestos-related diseases.

Every once in a while, plaintiffs’ and defense counsel[1], the media[2], the academy[3], and the insurance industry[4] ask whether “silica” is the next asbestos. Although the prospects have been, and remain, dim, plaintiffs’ counsel continue to try to build their litigation palace on sand, with predictably poor results. See Kimberley A. Strassel, “He Fought the Tort Bar — and Won,” Wall St. J. (May 4, 2009).

There are many serious disanalogies between asbestos and silica litigation. One glaring difference is the inability to summon any outrage over suppressed or nondisclosed knowledge of alleged silica cancer hazards. The silica cancer state of the art, written by those who are lionized in the asbestos litigation – Hueper, Schepers, and Hardy, along with NIOSH and the Surgeon General, all appropriately denied or doubted silica as a cause of lung cancer. See below. When the IARC shifted its views in the 1990s, under the weight of determined advocacy from some partisans in the occupational medicine community, and with the help from some rather biased reviews, industry promptly warned regardless of the lack of scientific support for the IARC’s conclusion. The manufacturing of faux consensus and certainty on silica and lung cancer is an important counter to the incessant media stories about the manufacturing of doubt on topics such as climate change.


[1] Robert D. Chesler, James Stewart, and Geoffrey T. Gibson, “Is Silica the Next Asbestos?” 176 N.J.L.J. 1 (June 28, 2004); Mark S. Raffman, “Where Will Silica Litigation Go?” 1 LJN Silica Legal News 1 (2005); Chris Michael Temple, “A Case for Why Silica Litigation Is Not the ‘Next Asbestos’,” LJN Product Liability Law & Strategy (2004).

[2] Jonathan D. Glater, “Suits on Silica Being Compared To Asbestos Cases,” N.Y. Times (Sept. 6, 2003).

[3] Michelle J. White, “Mass Tort Litigation: Asbestos,” in Jürgen Georg Backhaus, ed., Encyclopedia of Law and Economics 1 (2014); Melissa Shapiro, “Is Silica the Next Asbestos? An Analysis of the Silica Litigation and the Sudden Resurgence of Silica Lawsuit Filings,” 32 Pepperdine L. Rev. 4 (2005).

[4]Is silica the new asbestos?The Actuary (2005).


Historical Statements – – State-of-the-Art

Maxcy, ed., Rosenau Preventive Medicine and Hygiene 1051 (N.Y., 7th ed. 1951) (“Thus, there is no evidence that lung cancer is related in any way to silicosis.”)

May Mayers, “Industrial Cancer of the Lungs,” 4 Compensation Medicine 11, 12 (1952) (“Nevertheless, silicosis is not, apparently associated with, or productive of, lung cancer, whereas asbestosis very probably is.”) (Chief, Medical Unit, Division of Industrial Hygiene and Safety Standards, N.Y. Dep’t of Labor)

Geritt Schepers, “Occupational Chest Diseases,” Chap. 33, p. 455, ¶3, in A. Fleming, et al., eds., Modern Occupational Medicine (Phila. 2d ed. 1960) (“Lung cancer, of course, occurs in silicotics and is on the increase. Thus far, however, statistical studies have failed to reveal a relatively enhanced incidence of pulmonary neoplasia in silicotic subjects.”)

Spencer, Pathology of the Lung (1962) (“Silicosis and lung cancer inhaled silica, unlike asbestos, does not predispose to the development of lung cancer.”)

Wilhelm Hueper, Occupational and Environmental Cancers of the Respiratory System at 2-6 (N.Y. 1966) (“The bulk of the available epidemiologic evidence on the association of silicosis and lung cancer supports the view of a mere coincidental role of silicosis in this combination. *** From the evidence on hand, it appears that a well advanced silicosis does not seem to furnish a favorable soil for the development of cancer of the lung.”) (chief of the National Cancer Institute)

Harriet L. Hardy, “Current Concepts of Occupational Lung Disease of Interest to the Radiologist,” 2 Sem. Roentgenology 225, 231-32 (1967) (“cancer of the lung is not a risk for the silicotic. It is a serious risk following asbestos exposure and for hematite, feldspar, and uranium miners. This means that certain dusts and ionizing radiation alone or perhaps with cigarette smoke act as carcinogens.”)

Raymond Parkes, Occupational Lung Disorders 192 (London 1974) (“Bronchial carcinoma occasionally occurs in silicotic lungs but there is no evidence of a causal relationship between it and silicosis; indeed the incidence of lung cancer in miners with silicosis is significantly lower than in non-silicotic males.”)

Kaye Kilburn, Ruth Lilis, Edwin Holstein, “Silicosis,” in Maxcy-Rosenau, Public Health and Preventive Medicine, 11th ed., at 606 (N.Y. 1980) (“Lung cancer is apparently not a complication of silicosis.”)

Robert Jones, “Silicosis,” Chap. 16, in W. Rom, et al., eds., Environmental and Occupational Medicine 205 (Boston 1983) (“The weight of epidemiologic evidence is against the proposition that silicosis carries an increased risk of respiratory malignancy.”)

W. Keith C. Morgan & Anthony Seaton, eds., Occupational Lung Diseases 266 (1984) (“It is generally believed that silicosis does not predispose to lung cancer. * * * On balance, it seems unlikely that silicosis itself predisposes to lung cancer.”)

1 Anderson’s Pathology at 910b (1985) (“There is no evidence that silica increases the risk of lung cancer, nor does it enhance tobacco induced carcinogenesis.”)

U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, The Health Consequences of Smoking – Cancer and Chronic Lung Disease in the Workplace: A Report of the Surgeon General at 348, Chapter 8 “Silica‑Exposed Workers” (1985) (“the evidence does not currently establish whether silica exposure increases the risk of developing lung cancer in men.”)

J. Cotes & J. Steel, Work-Related Lung Disorders 156 (Oxford 1987) (“The inhalation of silica dust does not contribute to malignancy.”)

NIOSH Silicosis and Silicate Disease Committee, “Diseases Associated With Exposure to Silica and Non-fibrous Silicate Minerals,” 112 Arch. Path. & Lab. Med. 673, 707 (1988) (“Epidemiologic studies have been conducted in an effort to assess the role of silica exposure in the pathogenesis of lung cancer. *** Thus, the results are inconclusive … .”)

Arthur Frank, “Epidemiology of Lung Cancer, in J. Roth, et al., Thoracic Oncology, Chap. 2, at p. 8 (Table 2-1), 11 (Phila. 1989) (omitting silica from list of lung carcinogens) (“The question of the relationship of coal mining to the development of lung cancer has been frequently considered. Most evidence points to cigarette smoking among coal miners as the major causative factor in the development of lung cancer, and neither a recent84 nor a British study of lung cancer among coal miners has found any relationship to occupational exposure.”)

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