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Managing Partner Joe Belluck joined the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (CureMeso) for their “Meet the Experts” series. His answers provided a rarely seen window into how the legal process has become so important for mesothelioma patients to get proper compensation but also intertwined with how families pursue treatment and cope with mesothelioma. We’re pleased to provide both video and written transcripts of some of his most helpful answers.

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Mesothelioma Lawsuits Frequently Asked Questions

How did you get into the field of mesothelioma and asbestos litigation?


I got started doing this in 1999, so about 21 years ago, and have been doing it consistently since that time, first for the first couple of years with another law firm that specialized in asbestos cases and, for the past 18 years, with my firm Belluck & Fox focusing almost entirely on mesothelioma cases and some lung cancer cases.

After I went to work in Washington, DC for a consumer advocacy group called Public Citizen, they focus on making sure that consumer products, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, everyday household products are safe for consumers. That experience led me to go to law school and focus my legal career on representing people who are injured by defective products, whether they be automobiles or pharmaceuticals or specialists.

After graduating from law school, I went to work for a law firm that was representing the State of New York and its tobacco litigation and was one of a small number of people that led New York State’s litigation against the tobacco industry. I had a role in shutting down two organizations that the tobacco industry had set up. One was called the Center for Tobacco Research, and the other was called the Tobacco Institute. These were industry funded groups that were turning out scientific literature that was quite biased and tried to lead to the conclusion that nicotine was not addictive, and tobacco was not dangerous.

They were both located in New York, and I spearheaded the effort to close down those two organizations, which we were successful in doing. Immediately after that I went to work on asbestos cases in part because the history of asbestos litigation is very similar to the history of tobacco litigation, where you have a set of companies that hid the dangers of the product and manipulated the scientific literature to try to demonstrate that the product was safe. And I’ve been doing that work ever since. The main reason I do it is it’s very, very meaningful. We believe very strongly that people with mesothelioma have suffered an injustice, that it was a preventable disease. If the asbestos industry had taken some simple steps to protect workers and other people, and we fight very, very hard to make sure that our clients get a just result. If you are looking for a New York mesothelioma lawyer, contact us today.

The tobacco industry is known for sponsoring misleading research. How about the asbestos industry?


Yes, absolutely. There is an interesting connection between the tobacco industry and the asbestos industry. Actually, a lot of people don’t know this, but the asbestos industry was actually one of the first industries that proceeded on this path of trying to generate scientific literature that showed that their product was safe and to manipulate the knowledge that the public and the press and scientists were getting. The asbestos industry did that before the tobacco industry. Some of that was also in the State of New York at a place called the Saranac Institute, which was a tuberculosis research entity in the Adirondacks in Upstate New York. It was co-opted by Johns Manville and some other asbestos companies to research and then hide the results of the research. A lot of the law firms and public relations firms that were involved in the effort on behalf of the asbestos industry subsequently went to work for the tobacco industry and used a lot of the knowledge they got from doing this work for the asbestos industry to set up the political or lobbying and scientific research end of the tobacco industry. They were more successful with the tobacco industry than they were with the asbestos industry in doing it, but there was a connection between the two in terms of the players that were involved in doing that work for the industry.

Up until very recently, for example, in Canada, there was a tremendous amount of research taking place about the type of asbestos that is mined in Canada being safer than the type of asbestos that’s mined in other parts of the world. And it was very, very recently the Canadian government sort of retreated from that position, but for many, many years, you know, that research was being sponsored by the asbestos industry in Canada. Even in the United States, we’ve been unable to ban asbestos completely because of the industry lobby, which continues to peddle this myth that certain types of asbestos and certain types of applications are safe.

What is chrysotile asbestos? Is it safer?


Yes, absolutely, and it will be relevant also this conversation to I think some of the topics we’re going to cover about talc later on today, but asbestos this is a mineral and there are essentially six types of asbestos.

The two most commercially available types are chrysolite and chrysotile, and tremolite is another type of asbestos fiber, but there are six of these fiber types that are classified as asbestos from a mineral standpoint. And the chrysotile asbestos mostly comes from Canada. Chrysolite asbestos comes from other parts of the world, Australia, Africa, other places. Both of them were used commercially in the United States.

There is no government body that accepts the premise that chrysotile cannot cause mesothelioma, every government agency in the United States and, for the most part, around the world has taken the position that chrysotile asbestos can also cause mesothelioma. But the asbestos industry in Canada, the lawyers that represent asbestos companies in the United States, have developed a series of literature claiming that chrysotile does not cause mesothelioma. It’s only these other types of fibers like chrysolite that can cause mesothelioma. It is not something that they’re generally successful winning on in a court case because the evidence is so overwhelming that that’s not the case, but they’ve spent a tremendous amount of time muddying up the waters, and from a regulatory perspective have tried to prevent any regulation of chrysotile asbestos. As you were mentioning, chrysotile is often contaminated, with these other types of fibers in part, because especially this is something that’s mined out of the ground and when it’s mined it’s hard to just isolate a particular vein of mineral that would be all chrysotile. So much of the chrysotile is contaminated with things like tremolite, which is another asbestos fiber and has a significant potency to it.

We deal with this all the time in our cases and it’s another example of how the industry has manipulated the science with respect to asbestos and tried to allow the sale of chrysotile to continue. As I mentioned, up until very, very recently the Canadian government went along with this. It wasn’t until within the last couple of years when there was a series of groundbreaking newspaper articles and some of the Canadian newspapers and a number of scientists sort of broke ranks that the Canadian government has finally come around to the position that chrysotile is dangerous and can cause mesothelioma in and of itself, even if it’s not contaminated.

Why is it important for a mesothelioma patient to use a law firm that specializes in asbestos litigation?


As you know, doctor, mesothelioma, even though it’s gets a lot of attention, is a relatively rare disease. There are only about 3000 cases a year in the United States, and those numbers may be declining and as many people with mesothelioma figure out and, we certainly guide them in this direction, if you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, even if you have a very good local oncologist or local thoracic surgeon like yourself, local doctor in most parts of the United States is only going to see a handful of these cases a year medically. So, they’re not going to be as familiar with how to treat it. They’re not going to be as familiar with the latest research, the clinical trials, the protocols, and they’re not going to be as experienced in doing the surgeries and helping people with mesothelioma get the best treatment.

In the context of medical treatment, when we interact with a client, one of the things we do is make sure that they are going to a Mesothelioma Center, one that’s close to them or one that they can travel to. And that that Mesothelioma Center is working in conjunction with their local doctors, who again are maybe excellent doctors, but just don’t see enough mesothelioma cases to be expert in it. The same is true for us as lawyers. There are many good lawyers that help people who are injured but they don’t have the experience handling a mesothelioma case like our firm does, or a mesothelioma specialty firm like ours does. And it is a very steep learning curve for any lawyer, who’s just handling one mesothelioma case or a couple of mesothelioma cases to learn all of the science around it, including the issue of chrysotile or what type of fiber was in the product, to learn all the medicine about how asbestos fibers cause mesothelioma, and perhaps most importantly, to know all of the products that contained asbestos and the names of those products and when they were sold, and how they were used.

One of the features of asbestos mesothelioma is that there are lots of different ways that people can get exposed to asbestos. Some of them are very traditional, like a pipe fitter who put on insulation or boiler worker who worked with boilers, but we’ve also represented veterinarians who have used syringes that contained asbestos in the syringe. We’ve represented dentists to have used asbestos tape in making fittings, melting metal for fittings. We’ve represented artists who’ve using asbestos containing clay, doing ceramics, auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers, teachers who have used laboratory equipment that contained asbestos, like Bunsen burners and things like that. If you’re not a specialist in this when your client contacts you, you’re not going to be able to help them figure out exactly how they were exposed. That’s a lot of the value that we add. Then once you figure out how they were exposed you need to know which companies to pursue. So, for example, if it’s a case involving a boiler, you need to know the 10 or 12 or 15 companies that made boilers, and not only which ones made boilers, but what parts of the country they were sold. There are companies that sold boilers in New York, but didn’t sell them in say Illinois, there are suppliers that did business in New York, but not in Illinois.

So, if you get a client from New York, they may have been exposed to a particular group of companies that someone in Illinois would not have been exposed to. Then you have to know the names of the products and the years that the products were used. A good example of that is a product that a lot of our clients use called joint compound, which is used when you’re putting sheet rock up, in the seams, you put it on to cover the seam so it can be painted. All of the joint compound in the United States was asbestos free by 1978. If you get a client who worked with the product before 78, it had asbestos. If you get a client who worked with the product after 78, it didn’t contain asbestos. There are so many companies that made asbestos products, so many types of exposures, and so many details like the dates and the packaging of the products that if you are not a mesothelioma law firm like ours, you’re really not going to be able to get the right results for someone with mesothelioma.

What is the investigative process to determine exposure when a mesothelioma patient contacts an asbestos law firm?


In non-COVID time periods, once someone contacted us, we would arrange to meet them very quickly. Often within 24, 48 hours of their contacting us, we would literally go to their house and sit down with them and start the conversation with them. In the COVID time period to protect our clients and because of the restrictions we’re doing a lot of that virtually through a Zoom or a FaceTime type meeting. But the process really starts with us doing an interview with our clients. We go through their life with them. We ask them questions, like, “what did your parents do for a living?”, so we know if their parents worked with asbestos and may have brought asbestos home, we asked them about their schooling to see if they had any vocational classes when they were in school.

We ask them about their work history so we know the various jobs that they’ve had and what they did at those jobs, any military service that they may have had, where there might’ve been exposure. A lot of our clients were in the Navy or Air Force and were exposed in that way. We ask them about other people they may have lived with who worked outside the home, spouses, children. We ask them about any work they may have done in the home, like work on their own automobiles or home renovation work or projects around the house. A lot of our clients are handy and might’ve put up sheet rock or done brakes on their own automobiles, and we ask them about their hobbies to see if there’s any possible as asbestos exposure through some of the things I mentioned, like ceramics or, model building, or if they’re into cars or boats or things like that.

We take a pretty complete work history that usually takes about half hour, 45 minutes. With some people it’s very obvious what the exposure is. I was a boiler worker and I worked on boilers. Some people it’s not so obvious and we figure it out through that conversation. I would say 99% of the time, we’re able to figure out some exposure that our clients had. Then we drill down a little bit with them on the specific products they use and things like that. We also take a brief medical history mainly to find out what their health was like before the mesothelioma diagnosis, when and where they were diagnosed. What hospital did the biopsy and what treatment are they getting, chemotherapy surgery, radiation, or a combination of that. Once we complete that, we take that information and begin filing claims for them.

I should mention, because it’s a question that we get frequently. There’s two sort of parallel systems for getting compensation for people who have mesothelioma or asbestos diseases. One of them are what we refer to as bankruptcy trusts, and the other is the litigation system where we file a lawsuit, and the bankruptcy trusts exist because there are many companies that made asbestos products that have filed for bankruptcy. These are not bankruptcies like most people think about them where you’re actually in bankruptcy. These are companies who’ve made a decision that instead of litigating cases, they’re going to put money into a trust and, come back out of bankruptcy and continue operating without their asbestos liabilities. There are about 50 of these trusts that exist. A lot of our clients think there’s one big trust that has all this money, and they can just make a claim to one trust.

That’s actually not true. There were about 50 of these trusts and they’re set up for each company that has filed for bankruptcy. For example, there’s a Johns Manville bankruptcy trust, and in order to collect from that trust, you still need to show that you were exposed to the product. So, it’s really not something that people can do on their own because they still need a lot of the same proof that you need if you were going to file a lawsuit, you need to show you have mesothelioma, you need to provide medical records to demonstrate that, and you need to show that you had exposure to the trust’s product. The second system is the litigation system where we sue the companies that are still in business and still operating and have not chosen to do these voluntary bankruptcies. The way that we approach it, and we maximize the recovery for our clients, is to do both of these things simultaneously.

We file whatever trust claims are available based on our client’s interview and history. Then we also file a lawsuit against the companies that are still in business. We make sure that the information is consistent in the trust claims and in the lawsuit, so everything that’s being communicated is coordinated. Once we meet with the client through the intake, we figure out what trust claims we can file. We file a lawsuit against the company. If it’s someone who worked with boilers, we’re going to sue companies that made boilers. Then we have our clients sign something that I’m sure you’re familiar with called a HIPAA authorization. HIPAA is the medical privacy law, and these forms let us get copies of our client’s medical records.

We gather all the medical records, we also get military records or work records. And again, we do all of that so we’re not burdening the client with having to go chase down records or anything. Then, we do what’s done in every case, which is to research the companies, get documents from the companies, do the court appearances, and hopefully settle the case. And if not settle the case go to trial. The one thing that I always like to let people know about this is the main part of the case for our clients is what we call a deposition and that’s testimony outside the courtroom. There’s no judge, there’s no jury, they’re in a room with either me or one of our attorneys or the attorney that’s representing them.

The lawyers for the companies we’re suing get to ask them questions about how they worked with their product and how they used the product and how they might have been exposed to asbestos. And that’s something that we prepare our clients for, we’re next to them the whole time. It’s usually a one- or two-day deposition, depending on how many hours we can go each day. We do these depositions based on our client’s health. There are some clients who can only do an hour or two a day. So, we’ll do three days, a couple of hours a day. Then there are some clients who can do a full day. It may just take one day or two days to get it done. That’s the main time commitment that people with mesothelioma have, if they’re going to pursue any type of case. We’re very skilled at managing their health and their time through that process to make sure it doesn’t negatively impact them.

What is the typical timeline for an asbestos lawsuit, and how does that affect mesothelioma patients that may have a short survival window?


We approach everything in these cases extremely rapidly. It’s why, in non-COVID times, and now in COVID times, once we get contacted, we either are at our client’s house in 24 to 48 hours or setting up a Zoom meeting with them in that time period. You know, we hope all of our clients will live for a long time, live to see the completion of their case. But because our job is to protect their rights, we function on a worst-case scenario basis, which means that they could decline rapidly, or the treatment may impact their ability to participate in a deposition or help us with the case. We are on a rocket docket every time we get one of these cases, we literally meet with the person within a day or two.

We file the claims and cases within a couple of days of that. It’s not uncommon for us to file the case literally the day after we met the client just to get the process started. In most States, like for example, in New York, we get a preference from the court that allows the case to be completed within one year. So now when we’re seeing some longevity beyond a year in our mesothelioma patients, a lot of our clients are able to live to see the conclusion of their case, not just the beginning of it. We also try very hard to get them some settlement money very quickly. We usually are able to get some settlements within 30 to 45 days from the bankruptcy trusts and some of the other companies, and get some money flowing to the clients so they have some peace of mind about medical bills or other expenses. And again, the cases are usually concluded within a year, and we’re able to fully settle and resolve the case and get our clients their compensation within that one-year period.

Everything we do is very, very quickly. I always tell my clients, and it’s not just words, I don’t sleep well at night until I know that our client’s deposition is complete, that we have their testimony memorialized in a way that we can use it to protect them and their family. We do everything we can to avoid any delay. Having been through this with hundreds and hundreds of people with mesothelioma, we always hope for the best, but we know that things can turn very, very quickly, and we want to get done what we need to get done, while they’re still alive. A sort of related issue, which a lot of people ask us about is what happens if they unfortunately pass away during the process.

If that happens, we continue the case on behalf of their family, whether it be their spouse or children, or whoever the immediate family is. So even if something were to happen to them once we get the deposition done and have their testimony recorded, the case continues and we’re still able to protect their families. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had clients who have hung on, literally, to hear that their case is resolved and that their family is going to be getting compensation. Once we make that phone call to them, they pass away a short time after. The one thing I’ve learned about people with mesothelioma is that they’re fighters. It’s amazing how many times our clients hang in to just hear that their families are going to be okay and have some peace of mind about that.

Asbestos contamination and talc has been in the news. How do these lawsuits work?


I went through earlier some of the different types of products that contained asbestos. We talked a little bit about how asbestos is a mineral and it’s mined out of the ground. For many, many, many years – decades – the talc that was used in products like baby powder and cosmetics, were also mined out of the ground, talc, it’s a mineral mined out of the ground. When it was mined, fragments of asbestos and contamination of the talc occurred. So similar to what we were talking about with the tobacco industry and the traditional asbestos industry, the companies that sold these talc products were very sophisticated. They were testing the products to see if they had asbestos or asbestos-like fibers in them.

They figured out that they did in many circumstances. They didn’t tell consumers that there was a potential for asbestos exposure when these products were being used, and maybe even more insidious, they actually went to Washington, DC and lobbied the government agencies to classify the asbestos that was in their talc as not being asbestos. They actually tried to change the definition of asbestos so they could tell the public there was no asbestos in their product. It is very, very egregious conduct, and the documents that have gotten out through the litigation process are very, very damaging. The juries that have reviewed these documents have felt that punitive damages, the highest level of damages to punish a company for misconduct, are warranted in many of these cases.

It overwhelmingly affects women, not entirely because men lived with women who used health products and helped out with taking care of diapering and activities with children, and some men use talc themselves on different parts of their body, but it overwhelmingly affects women. It’s a women’s health issue. It’s not just products like baby powder or after shower powders. It’s also cosmetics, brand names that I think most people or most women would be familiar with and use. These are largely body powders, perfumed or fragranced, body powders that might be used in place of a traditional baby powder.

We are seeing many, many mesothelioma cases now where the only exposure is to talc. Many of these clients are very young. We have clients now in their thirties and forties who are getting diagnosed with mesothelioma. With the latency period, you’re talking about people who use this as a teenager or in their twenties, thinking it was safe with no warning and have young families themselves, and are just getting diagnosed with mesothelioma. And it’s, it’s really upsetting and concerning.

What is a latency period and why is it relevant for asbestos exposure, especially in children or young women?


Asbestos is a disease of latency. Latency basically means that there’s a time period between exposure and when you get diagnosed with mesothelioma or lung cancer. So asbestos is not the type of product or substance that you would breathe in today and get mesothelioma tomorrow. You need a certain amount of time between when you breathe asbestos in and when you get mesothelioma, and most authorities on this will tell you that you need at least 12 to 15 years, on the very low end. But it could be as many as 60 years or more from the time of exposure.

So many of our clients were exposed to asbestos in the late fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, early two thousands, and are just getting diagnosed with mesothelioma now. It’s one of the insidious qualities of asbestos and mesothelioma is that our clients, for the most part, were exposed at some point in the past, went on to live a life of not being exposed, were nearing retirement or living their lives with young families and out of the blue get diagnosed with mesothelioma, and the remainder of their life is so significantly impacted. So, it’s one of the elements of this disease that’s so insidious, and also one of the reasons why having a law firm like ours that specializes in this is important because the exposures are a long time ago, and you need to be a bit of a historian about asbestos to do that work and it’s one of the things that sometimes makes figuring out how the exposure occurred difficult.

Why is it important for mesothelioma patients to contact an asbestos lawyer right away?


If someone has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, we understand that the primary focus in the beginning is on getting their medical treatment. But we also know that we need to do things quickly on the legal side to make sure that the patient and their families are protected financially. So, I would encourage anybody with mesothelioma not to wait to contact an attorney, whether it be my firm or another firm and get the process started.

The more that we can do early on, the better and easier the process is going to be for the patient too. I always hate to make our clients feel rushed and we understand obviously getting the medical treatment to try to help them with survival is paramount. But we also have had a lot of circumstances where people have waited and made the compensation process more difficult for them and their family. So, we can do that in a way that doesn’t interfere with their medical treatment and doesn’t burden them too much.