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Amchem Products v. Windsor


On the level of events current to the Court's ruling in Amchem Products, the decision was significant in that it helped further define the framework for a number of large class-action suits that were due to become an increasingly prominent part of legal life in the following years. Examples of such cases include not only those involving asbestos manufacturers, but also cases relating to silicone breast implants and, perhaps most important of all, tobacco companies. But in a larger sense, Amchem signalled the Court's determination to stand by the constitutional separation of powers, thus leaving the resolution of certain matters involving asbestos litigation to Congress--even though it might "speed things up" for the courts to take matters into their own hands.

Beginning in the 1970s, there was a series of lawsuits in the United States involving asbestos, a product used widely from the 1930s through the 1950s because of its fire-resistant qualities. Exposure to asbestos was found to cause cancer and other fatal diseases, such as asbestosis, and since these diseases sometimes had a latency period of several decades before they made themselves known, litigation over asbestos continued long after the product ceased to be used.

By the 1980s and 1990s, a glut of asbestos litigation had begun to form within the courts, slowing down the pace of operations of the American legal system, according to the finding of the United States Judicial Conference Ad Hoc Committee on Asbestos Litigation, which was appointed by the Supreme Court chief justice in September of 1990. The committee recommended that Congress form its own agency to resolve disputes over asbestos claims, but by the mid-1990s, Congress had taken no such action. Instead, the federal courts had put all asbestos complaints into a single judicial district, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Once the cases were consolidated, the lines were drawn. On the one side was a consortium of 20 companies, including Amchem Products, called the Counsel for the Center for Claims Resolution (CCR.) On the other were the individuals, and families of individuals, who had claims against such companies, represented by attorneys Ronald L. Motley, Gene Locks, and Joseph F. Rice. Starting in November of 1991, CCR attempted to get agreement from the plaintiffs for an omnibus offer which would settle a large proportion, if not all, of the present and future asbestos-related cases. After some negotiation, the settlement offer was narrowed down to focus solely on claims that had not yet entered litigation. In the negotiations, attorneys for persons with cases pending also endeavored to represent those with future cases, which would later be judged a conflict of interest.

Once CCR had settled, for some $200 million, the claims of those with cases pending (so-called "inventory claimants"), it instituted the settlement in question in Amchem Products. On 15 January 1993, CCR and the attorneys for the plaintiff presented the Pennsylvania district court judge with the complaint, answer, proposed settlement agreement, and joint motion for conditional class certification. Thus there would be no litigation, and the aim was to settle the matter as quickly as possible. Nine lead plaintiffs were identified in the complaint, which stated that these represented all persons in the plaintiff class, which had no subclasses. Under the terms of the settlement, all claims not filed before 15 January 1993 would be settled in terms that did not adjust future payments for inflation, and which capped the number of claims payable annually.

Clearly such an offer was in CCR's best interests, but many of the plaintiffs were eager to take it as well. A number of plaintiffs, however, opted out of the settlement, and so informed Judge Reed, who had been appointed by the head trial judge, Judge Weiner, to review the fairness of the proceedings. Nonetheless, the district court found that the case met the requirements of Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which makes stipulations regarding the number of persons involved in a class-action suit, the commonality of their claims, and the preponderance of such claims within the class.

The objectors, however, took the case--which up to this point had the name Georgine v. Amchem Products, Inc. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The latter vacated the lower court's certification, holding that the requirements of Rule 23 had not been satisfied.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to PresentAmchem Products v. Windsor - Significance, The Proper Question Of Class Certification, Breyer Urges Action, Further Readings