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The number of lawsuits filed by automobile brake mechanics across the nation is going in one direction — up. In February 2003, there were 25,000 asbestos-related lawsuits against Ford Motor Co. But by February 2004, the number shot to 41,500, according to the auto manufacturer’s annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. General Motors Corp. has not disclosed the number of suits it is facing. Plaintiffs’ lawyers noted that the number of suits — which mainly involve brake and clutch linings — will keep growing as the latent effects of asbestos manifest themselves and more mechanics fall ill. Steve Kazan of Oakland, Calif.-based Kazan, McClain, Abrams, Fernandez, Lyons & Farrise, said he can’t think of a single plaintiffs’ lawyer practicing in asbestos that is not handling brake cases. His firm, which takes on a small number of cancer victims, has a handful of cases. “We regularly bring brake exposure cases,” said Kazan. “And these cases are regularly won in front of juries.” Kazan estimates that GM and other automakers are facing roughly the same number of lawsuits as Ford. While some mechanics work on only one brand, it’s more typical that they deal with many products over their careers and need to sue multiple defendants, Kazan said. The reason for the increased litigation is a matter of debate. Ford’s report to the SEC says it is being targeted as more co-defendants drop into bankruptcy. “Most of the asbestos litigation we face involves mechanics or other individuals who have worked on the brakes of our vehicles over the years,” Ford’s report states. “Also, in most asbestos litigation, we are not the sole defendant. We believe we are being more aggressively targeted in asbestos suits because many previously targeted companies have filed for bankruptcy.” Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes said the company no longer manufacturers auto parts containing asbestos. She declined to speak further, noting that asbestos litigation is an industrywide problem. Mark A. Behrens, a partner in the Washington office of Kansas City, Mo.-based Shook, Hardy, & Bacon, said the so-called “friction” defendants — automakers like Ford and General Motors — have become the next generation of companies to be sued over asbestos. They are replacing traditional asbestos manufacturers like John Manville Corp. that have succumbed to bankruptcy. “The plaintiffs’ bar is actively searching for new deep pockets to replace those that don’t exist anymore,” said Behrens, counsel to the Coalition for Litigation Justice, a policy group that lobbies for asbestos reform on behalf of insurance companies. The friction defendants get their name from the lawsuits’ allegations of hazardous exposure to asbestos resulting from friction between parts of a vehicle, such as brake linings and clutches. Truck makers and even airplane manufacturers like Boeing Co. may also be at risk of litigation for asbestos in brake parts, according to Behrens. Plaintiffs’ lawyers said that the asbestos dangers faced by brake mechanics is not new. Studies from the 1930s document the risk to mechanics and to family members exposed by contact with workers’ clothes, said Mark Iola of Dallas’ Stanley, Mandel & Iola. “There are thousands of those cases out there,” said Iola, referring to secondhand exposure cases. Iola represents victims with malignant asbestos diseases, a handful of whom are brake mechanics. He has also seen a number of “shade tree” claims brought by unemployed mechanics who worked on their own cars or those of their friends and neighbors. “These companies had extensive knowledge going back to the ’30s and ’40s about the hazards of exposure and how asbestos could kill,” said Iola, denying Ford’s assertion that it is being targeted. “Instead of doing the right thing and warning brake mechanics, the automakers who manufactured these brakes decided it wasn’t necessary.” Plaintiffs’ lawyers speculate that many mechanics working today are still uninformed about the hazards of asbestos. There is a public misconception that asbestos has been banned, they say, and few realize that some of the parts they use today still contain the substance. “It’s hard to distribute information to nonunionized workers,” said Rick Meadow, a trial lawyer at New York’s Weitz & Luxenberg who regularly represents mechanics. “A lot of these guys didn’t know there was asbestos in the brake shoes.” Meadow said that the recent spike in claims correlates with the proliferation of automobiles, disc brakes and mechanics during the 1950s and 1960s. “It’s a latent disease that takes 15 to 50 years to manifest,” said Meadow.

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