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A serpentine approach toward more asbestos litigation

A California legislator has sponsored a bill to end serpentine's status as state rock because of its (thin) connection to asbestos-related illnesses, legislation that has now passed the state Senate. A common reaction is expressed in this Imperial Valley Press editorial:

You've got to hand it to state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who obviously knows a burning issue in need of a legislative fire retardant when she sees one. And, really, who can argue with her premise that there is no more pressing matter right now than the fitness of a rock called serpentine to remain as the state's official geological symbol?

After all, it's not as if California has a $20-billion budget deficit to close, overcrowded prisons or underfunded schools teetering on the brink or anything.

The media love these sorts of stories. In a former life as a legislative reporter in North Dakota, I remember excessive attention being paid to a state fossil, state horse and state dance. But in those cases, the advocacy was parochial, promotional and ultimately harmless, e.g., "If we declare the Nokota the state horse, more people will want to visit Emmons County."

In this case, the national story (even international) story warrants attention because the legislation is another clever attempt to expand asbestos-related liability and litigation. The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization helped write the bill, and the Consumer Attorneys of California are pushing it -- no matter that when asbestos does occur in naturally occurring serpentine, it poses no realistic risk to anyone's health.

Dan Walters, the Sacramento Bee columnist, summarizes:

Were S.B. 624 to become law, declaring serpentine as carcinogenic, it could widen the opportunities for lawsuits against owners of property with naturally occurring outcroppings of serpentine. And it's become a new skirmish in the perennial war between personal injury lawyers and the business-backed Civil Justice Association of California.

"I've heard that personal injury lawyers will leave no stone unturned in their hunt for new cases, but this is ridiculous," said John Sullivan, the association's president.

Could purely symbolic resolutions really serve the goals of the litigation industry? Last Wednesday the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported out H.Res. 771, "Supporting the goals and ideals of a National Mesothelioma Awareness Day." Excerpt:

Whereas workers exposed on a daily basis over a long period of time are most at risk, but even short-term exposures can cause the disease and an exposure to asbestos for as little as one month can result in mesothelioma 20-50 years later;

Whereas asbestos was used in the construction of virtually all office buildings, public schools, and homes built before 1975 and asbestos is still on the United States market in over 3,000 products;

Whereas there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos;

Etc. We await the TV ads, "Even Congress has declared asbestos a killer, and warns that any exposure can be deadly..."

P.S. Here's the text and legislative history of SB 624. And here's Peter Falk shouting "Serpentine!" From "The In-Laws."

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.