People suffering from malignant mesothelioma who have filed lawsuits in courts across the country against the companies that exposed them to cancer-causing asbestos are promised a speedy trial due to their deteriorating health. However, many are still waiting for their day in court due to the pauses on civil trials when courtrooms closed to stop the spread of COVID-19. Jury trials have still not resumed in many states.
This provides a challenging legal conundrum. In most states, if the plaintiff passes away before the trial begins, any compensation would go to his family. But in 11 states, including Alabama, when a plaintiff dies, so does his pain and suffering claim. As a result, his family is no longer eligible to collect on that claim, effectively shutting down their avenue to hold corporate wrongdoers responsible for their actions.
“Personally, I am aware of mesothelioma cases pending in Alabama and other states where the cases were effectively put on ‘pause’ in early March of 2020,” said Charlie Stern, the lead attorney at Beasley Allen working on these cases. “Only recently are some of these mesothelioma cases beginning to proceed again, but trials have been few and far between. One unanticipated kind of collateral damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is that people who are suffering from terminal illnesses, including mesothelioma, are less likely to live to see their day in court. Because of this, their families may lose access to legal remedies and compensation that otherwise would have been available.”
California is another state that doesn’t allow pain and suffering claims to move forward after the plaintiff passes away. Lawmakers there are calling on each of the state’s 58 superior courts to disclose whether they have failed to give cases brought by terminal patients priority.
This is a particularly sticky issue with mesothelioma patients. Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, a mineral that was widely used in construction and shipbuilding materials and friction products. It can take up to 50 years for mesothelioma symptoms to present. Once diagnosed, the disease usually proves fatal within a year or two. There is no known cure for the disease. Mesothelioma patients suddenly find themselves on borrowed time if they want to secure justice from the companies that exposed them to asbestos, and ensure their families are secure.
“Even under ideal, pre-COVID conditions, some mesothelioma victims never live to see their day in Court because of the fast-acting nature of the disease, but the system is designed to give them fast access to the courts,” Stern said. “The purpose of the civil judicial system is to hold bad actors accountable for damages that they have caused, compensate the victims and to deter future similar bad acts from occurring. As more and more mesothelioma victims die during the pendency of their trials, some of them will lose access to the legal remedies that the system is supposed to protect. Through no fault of their own, these people were exposed to asbestos and developed mesothelioma. Now, through no fault of their own, their day in court and access to all available legal remedies is in peril. The only winners in this situation are the bad actors who may escape liability and not be fully punished for their past bad acts.”
In California, terminal patients can petition the court to have their cases heard within 120 days. But COVID-19-related court closures and delays have left many of these plaintiffs on hold. An investigation by NBC Bay Area found that some patients who petitioned during the pandemic were never granted early trials, though how many is unclear. The news agency reported the California Judicial Council could not provide information on how many terminally ill people had petitioned for an expedited trial but had their cases delayed beyond 120 days.
“We should be able to know whether or not that right is truly being implemented and how it’s being implemented,” Assemblyman Mark Stone told NBC Bay Area. “If the courts are not tracking the ability of individuals to attain the rights that either the Constitution or the legislature have given them, then to me, that’s kind of an administrative failure within the system. We absolutely have every right to ask how that’s going and, if it’s not working, ask them how they’re going to then address what is a statutory obligation.”
Beasley Allen lawyers handle mesothelioma claims. They are looking at cases of industrial, occupational and secondary asbestos exposure resulting in lung cancer or mesothelioma as well as claims of asbestos-related talc products linked to mesothelioma. Charlie Stern is an experienced mesothelioma lawyer, well equipped to tackle asbestos cases, which are highly complicated and require someone with a true understanding of the facts, medical issues, science and law. He is working together with Will Sutton, another experienced lawyer in our Toxic Torts Section, on these cases. Contact us for more information.