A March 2007 Reason article is a must-read for its historical description of how so many mass torts arise from the plaintiffs' bar blaming deep-pocketed private industry for health catastrophes caused by government policy:
The wider conventional view [treats] hazardous products as a sort of standing reproach to capitalism: Businesses foist such products on us in search of profit, the narrative goes, while government protects us from them. And there is much in the asbestos debacle that does reflect discredit on private companies' actions.
Yet the government, our alleged protector, has done much at all levels to promote products later assailed as needlessly unsafe, from tobacco to lead paint, from cheap handguns to Agent Orange. Often the state is at least as aware of the risks as the businesses that distribute the product, and in at least as good a position to control or prevent them. But-shaped and propelled by the incentives provided by our litigation system-our process of organized blame hardly ever puts the government in the dock.
And, hey: it's written by Walter Olson, so you know it's going to be good. Read the whole thing. (Cross-posted at Overlawyered.)
(P.S. by W.O.: Thanks, Ted -- the piece is being linked and discussed at quite a few places around the blogosphere, including Glenn Reynolds, Reason "Hit and Run", The Economist's Free Exchange, Bill Childs, Byron Steir at Mass Tort Litigation Blog, David Hardy's Arms and the Law, and Prof. Bainbridge).
Plus: And yet more, from business historian (and friend) John Steele Gordon at the American Heritage blog.