Private equity firms are buying up asbestos liability claims — and asbestos victims will pay the price.

By Helen Santoro, The Lever

Private equity firms are quietly buying up a literal toxic asset: companies’ liabilities for decades of asbestos poisoning. Some Wall Street firms are scoring huge payouts to take on the hassle and financial risks of people getting sick and dying from asbestos exposure — and they can use threadbare oversight and cutthroat legal maneuvers to delay and deny these victims’ claims.

While assuming asbestos liabilities might seem like a losing proposition — lawsuits from people with asbestos-related diseases have cost companies billions — private equity firms can demand huge payments for the service and are not required to abide by traditional insurance regulations regarding how they manage and invest this cash.

an old asbestos siding building

“I don’t think there’s any oversight to this,” said Michael Shepard, a Boston-based attorney who represents victims seeking damages for asbestos exposure. Investors have “hit upon this ability to have access to a deep well of cash and handle it the way they want to handle it without any oversight whatsoever.”

To get rid of their asbestos liabilities, industrial manufacturers create a subsidiary company onto which they offload their asbestos-related assets. The manufacturer will also add a large pool of cash to their subsidiary, ranging from hundreds of millions to even billions of dollars. A private equity company will then acquire the subsidiary company and its asbestos liabilities, making them responsible for any asbestos claims.

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