Asbestos has long filled W. Va. courtrooms

John O'Brien May 7, 2008, 1:25pm

NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) - The poor reputation of West Virginia's court system can be reflected in statistics dealing with asbestos litigation, an economic think tank said Tuesday.

Jim Copland, director for the Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy, said not to be fooled by a graph in his organization's fifth installment of its "Trial Lawyers, Inc.," series that showed asbestos activity down in the Mountain State.

"I wouldn't infer from that that West Virginia somehow improved as a jurisdiction in these types of cases, because West Virginia continues to be ranked at or near the bottom of several surveys," Copland said.

"It may be anomalous, not a situation like Texas or Mississippi."

Those states, Copland said, have experienced significant reform that have improved their business climates. West Virginia was recently ranked last in a polling of corporate defense lawyers arranged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the owner of Legal Newsline.

The state has also been dubbed a "judicial hellhole" by the American Tort Reform Association every year since 2002.

While some, like state Attorney General Darrell McGraw, argue that the poll results are nothing more than propaganda, companies like CSX Transportation would disagree.

According to numbers it recently filed in a federal court, 4,747 of the 5,325 individuals represented by the Pittsburgh firm Peirce, Raimond & Coulter who have filed suit against CSX in West Virginia have nothing to do with the state.

Only 10.8 percent of West Virginia plaintiffs are from the state, according to John Wylie, the principal author of the report. "The rest," Wylie said, "are people packaged and bundled and filed in West Virginia."

Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and New York, states with shipyards, are listed as having been the most active from 2003-07. West Virginia had been included from 1970-2000.

Using findings by Michelle White, a professor of economics at the University of California in San Diego, the report says asbestos awards in West Virginia are among the highest in the country.

"I would assert that West Virginia's courts have consistently been pro-plaintiff," Copland said. "It's a state that's been very favorable, the judges tended to be very favorable toward plaintiffs."

McGraw claims those who criticize the state's legal environment only do so because it is one of the few states that holds companies accountable for their actions. He recently claimed the U.S. Chamber uses tactics similar to those Adolf Hitler used.

"I do subscribe to the idea that the means and methods the National Chamber uses to influence public opinion are like those Hitler used," McGraw said while being interviewed in his state Capitol office. "Exaggeration and propaganda of all sorts."

The President of the West Virginia Association for Justice (former the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association) also claimed businesses just don't like having to pay up.

"These corporations believe that the should not be held accountable when they refuse to pay fair and just insurance claims, produce unsafe products, put their employees in dangerous workplaces, pollute the environment or swindle employees out of their retirement," Wheeling attorney Teresa Toriseva said in December.

"They are willing to say and do anything to advance their political agenda of total corporate immunity and increased corporation profits -- even if that means releasing phony studies and lying to West Virginians to do it."

That would be a hard sell to CSX. The company says Dr. Ray Harron has been a part of the asbestos lawsuit machine, approving mass amounts of diagnoses in exchange for payment from law firms like Pittsburgh's Peirce, Raimond & Coulter. CSX claims the two conspired with each other on fraudulent claims.

One such claim had another man with lung disease sitting in for the plaintiff during his screening. That plaintiff ended up earning a settlement.

From Legal Newsline: You can reach John O'Brien by e-mail at

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