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The litigious boom may deplete both the goodwill and the financial resources to deal with serious future victims of asbestos poisoning. "Asbestos has a long incubation period, and we're still seeing cases where the exposure took place in World War II," says Kazan. "How will cancer victims 40 years from now be compensated?" Adding to the problem: thousands of healthy plaintiffs, worried they may be left out, file claims to protect themselves lest a firm go bankrupt before they show any symptoms.
Solutions are a long way off. Efforts to create a central claims administrator have repeatedly collapsed. Reform is predictably in conflict with political realities. The Democrats received $77 million from lawyers during the 2000 election cycle. For their part, in a post-Enron world, the Republicans have little interest in exacerbating the perception that they are the party of Big Business. (Halliburton, for instance, because its former ceo is Vice President Dick Cheney, is on its own.)
Among those who think the problems need fixing, there is no shortage of ideas about how to clean up what U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter has called an "elephantine mass." The Asbestos Alliance, a group of about 100 companies led by the National Association of Manufacturers, has put forth a three-point solution: establish medical criteria under which an individual can make a claim, restrict plaintiffs from filing suit in a state unrelated to the case (such as Texas or Mississippi) and prevent lawyers from lumping together healthy and sick plaintiffs.
Oddly, it may be up to people like Huber--who feel they have been had and are not going to take it anymore--to raise the call against allegedly crooked lawyers. If he wins, he and his fellow plaintiffs could receive more than 10 times the $14,000 they were originally promised in the settlement. The complaint asks for compensatory damages above $150,000 and punitive damages in excess of $500,000. The defendants named in the Huber complaint have yet to file an official response, and lawyers representing the proposed class have declined to comment.
Plenty of Ronald Hubers out there--manipulated, dwarfed by industry and ignored by government--ought to be willing to fight back.