Bankruptcy has emerged as a dominant avenue for resolving mass product liability cases and, in particular, asbestos liability cases. Plaintiffs already have filed hundreds of thousands of asbestos claims, with many experts surmising that the peak of asbestos litigation is not yet in sight. Asbestos encompasses a family of naturally occurring fibrous materials that have superior insulation and tensile strength properties. Manufacturers began to exploit the flame-retardant and insulating properties of asbestos in heavy industrial use in the 1940s and incorporated asbestos into as many as 3000 products by the early 1970s, when industrial usage peaked. From automotive applications, such as gaskets and brakes, to home uses, such as roof shingles and attic insulation, the use of asbestos for commercial applications proliferated throughout most of the 20th century and still continues today at a decreased rate. The United States still consumes approximately 16,000 metric tons of asbestos each year.
Although asbestos is abundant, cheap and useful, it is also extremely hazardous. The United States Department of Health and Human Services classifies all types of asbestos as carcinogenic when in their airborne or “friable” state. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening of the lungs. Between 1940 and 1979, more than 27 million workers in the United States were exposed to significant amounts of asbestos dust in the workplace, and countless others encountered asbestos in their everyday lives. Because of the long latency period of asbestos-related disease, cancer claims arising from the peak usage years of the 1970s have yet to be brought. It is estimated that more than 85% of U.S. industries face, or will face, asbestos claims.
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