Cancer Patient Sues Twice
Exposure to asbestos can cause a myriad of illnesses, often manifesting many years after the exposure. Pulmonary asbestosis is a nonmalignant asbestos-related lung disease; those who suffer from it are considered to be at a heightened risk for lung cancers. Certain lung cancers are recognized as related to asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is a rare disease caused by asbestos exposure and characterized by tumors in the membranes that line the lungs, abdomen, and heart. By 1989, the federal government had banned most commercial use of asbestos in the United States. But considerable use and manufacturing of asbestos through the 20th century, and its use in ships, buildings, and the automotive industry, led to high rates of asbestos diseases, particularly among people who worked in industries such as building, repairs, and manufacturing, where asbestos was widely used. Asbestos-injury litigation cases make up a large docket that occupies a considerable amount of time for Pennsylvania courts.
As asbestos liability law has developed over the past 40 years, Pennsylvania law has recognized that one person can bring separate lawsuits if he or she suffers from more than one disease as a result of asbestos exposure, Called the “two-disease rule,” and “the separate disease rule,” the rule recognizes that people exposed to asbestos can develop a myriad of diseases, sometimes over a long period of time. The rule initially provided that plaintiffs could bring a claim for a nonmalignant asbestos related disease, like pulmonary asbestosis, and later bring a subsequent action for a separately diagnosed malignant disease. Recently, the rule was expanded by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In the case before the court, a man who suffered from pulmonary asbestosis and an asbestos-related lung cancer sued a group of asbestos manufacturers in 1990 and settled his claims against them. Fifteen years later, the man was diagnosed with the rare, but clearly asbestos-related, condition called mesothelioma. He sued again and lost his second claim on the ground that he had initially recovered for both a nonmalignant and a malignant condition in his first lawsuit.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the dismissal and permitted the man’s claims to go forward, finding that the lower court had unduly restrictively analyzed the two-disease rule. Noting that plaintiffs must bring their initial asbestos lawsuits within two years of the first signs of asbestos related conditions, the court observed that asbestos plaintiffs struggle to manage claims because “exposure to asbestos may result in a variety of benign and malignant conditions, each of which may occur at widely divergent times.” The court clarified that the “two disease” or “separate disease’ rule does permit a plaintiff to sue again for a later diagnosis of a “distinct malignant disease caused by the same asbestos exposure,” even if the settlement or verdict in the previous suit included compensation for an earlier-diagnosed malignant disease.