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RPWB attorney presents genealogy of asbestos litigation

CHARLESTON, SC — RPWB asbestos attorney Karl Novak is presenting at the 2015 Plaintiff Asbestos Litigation Seminar in Las Vegas this week.

Novak has spent several months researching the genealogy of asbestos and mesothelioma litigation, including the evolution of case law and the attorneys involved in it. Fresh from piecing together his own family tree, he got the idea after seeing all of the new faces at last year’s conference.

“I remember sitting in the conference, looking around at all of the people and wondering, ‘how did we get this big and where did we come from?’” Novak said.

The presentation begins with Nellie Kershaw, a 13-year-old British woman who went to work weaving asbestos fibers. By 1922, the 29-year-old had to quit working because of respiratory problems. She died penniless four years later and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave after her previously employer refused to provide any assistance. Her case became the basis of the first medical article about the dangers of asbestos in 1924.

In the United States, asbestos litigation started with the first worker’s compensation claim in 1927. Much of the credit for modern-day litigation goes to Texas attorney Ward Stephenson, a third-generation attorney who took the first case against asbestos manufacturers to trial through verdict (a previous trial had settled). He lost the case in 1969.

The following month, a second asbestos victim, Claude Borel, walked into Stephenson’s office. He filed another third-party lawsuit, this time using the 1965 landmark 402A Restatement of Torts, which allows plaintiffs to hold manufacturers responsible for the strict liability of their products even if no negligence is involved. Stephenson won the case in 1971. It was appealed the following year to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Stephenson died three days before the court upheld the verdict.

From that point, asbestos litigation grew dramatically. Precipitated by changes to the rules allowing lawyers to advertise, the number of defendants targeted by asbestos litigation grew from a handful to 200 in 1981. By 2002, that number had ballooned to 8,400 defendants. Similarly, the number of cases has experienced explosive growth, from about 25,000 cases by 1983 to more than 320,000 by 2005.

Novak’s love of genealogy has some striking similarities to investigating and litigating asbestos and mesothelioma cases.

“Litigating an asbestos case is not unlike researching a family tree,” he said. “We basically compile an oral history. You talk to people and you accumulate evidence. You then spread out all of the bits of information you’ve collected and put the pieces together to form a jigsaw puzzle that tells the person’s story.”

RPWB attorneys have been litigating asbestos and mesothelioma cases for more than 30 years. One of our founding members, Terry Richardson, was at the forefront of asbestos litigation in the 1970s. Since then, we have helped thousands of individuals throughout the United States. To view more information about our asbestos and mesothelioma practice, please visit www.mesoinfocenter.com

For more about Karl Novak, click here.

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