Pa. Court: Earlier Asbestos Settlement Has No Impact on New Suit

October 30, 2009

The estates of two men who died of asbestos-related lung cancer years after receiving a settlement for increased risks and fear of the disease can again sue another manufacturer of the material under the so-called “two-disease rule,” Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Plaintiffs Kenneth Abrams and John Shaw, were diagnosed with nonmalignant asbestos-related disease in 1984 and 1985. After the diagnoses, they sued various manufacturers of the asbestos-containing material to which Abrams and Shaw were exposed in their jobs. They sought damages for their increased risk of cancer, and ultimately settled that suit in 1993.

However, in 2002, both men were then diagnosed with lung cancer — eventually dying of the disease. Prior to their deaths, the two had again sued the same companies — along with another, John Crane Inc., which was not a party to the earlier suit — alleging occupational exposure to asbestos-containing products manufactured by the defendants caused Abram’s and Shaw’s cancer.

Crane’s involvement in the case is the subject of the particular Supreme Court appeal. Crane’s lawyers had sought to dismiss the suit, arguing that because the company was not a party to the earlier settlement, statutes of limitation and state law prevented Shaw and Abrams from seeking damages 20 years later against Crane. Since Crane was not a party to the original suit, lawyers argued that Abrams and Shaw had effectively relinquished claims against the company in failing to seek damages years ago.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument, overturning an earlier, lower-court ruling in Crane’s favor.

The court argued that the legal system had adopted a “two-disease rule” for asbestos-related claims, meaning that the earlier settlement for nonmalignant, asbestos-related lung disease — essentially fear of and risk for developing cancer — did not establish a statute of limitations for later suits in which a defendant actually develops lung cancer.

The suit appears to clear the way for Abrams’ and Shaw’s widows to seek damages against Crane.

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