Given the incessant TV buzz created by law firms hoping to represent people with mesothelioma, a fatal cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos, you might assume that these types of lawsuits have been "business as usual" for decades. But with tort reform seemingly always an issue for politicians trying to show their allegiance to corporate America, that assumption is just plain wrong. In fact, in 1999 individual lawsuits for mesothelioma victims almost became a thing of the past.
The case was Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp., 526 U.S. 815, 119 S. Ct. 2295 (1999) and it was one of the last decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court that year. This seven to two decision was given after months of fierce debate. The issue: should all future claims by people who developed illnesses related to asbestos exposure be handled as a class action, allowing the asbestos companies to settle all future asbestos claims for minimal values before most victims even knew they had a claim.
Baron & Budd fought the class action concept vigorously; in fact, we led the battle to throw out the Fiberboard mandatory class action settlement that would have severely limited the rights of individuals to pursue individual claims based upon the severity of their illness and circumstances of their exposure.
Writing for the Court, Justice Souter questioned the fairness of the settlement because, if allowed to go forward, Fibreboard would have essentially been given a "get out of jail free card." Amazingly, Fiberboard would have been able to settle all asbestos claims– including all future claims–with only $500,000 of its own money, thus retaining virtually all of its net worth at the expense of the victims of its asbestos-containing products.
The Ortiz decision corroborated an earlier Supreme Court decision in which Baron & Budd also fought for victims’ rights: Amchem Products v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 117 S. Ct. 2231, 138 L.Ed2d 689 (1997).
I am proud to say that Baron & Budd led the way in both United States Supreme Court cases. We not only fought to preserve the right of individuals but we also fought against powerful interest groups and, sadly, against some other plaintiffs’ firms who were willing to trade future victims’ rights for a quick pay day.
So, the next time you see an ad, remember that whatever law firm is advertising, the promise of justice the ad represents was made possible by the hard work of Baron & Budd.