Proposed Asbestos Fund Divides VictimsCompensation Plan Bypasses Courts
Washington Post, April 20, 2004, Albert B. Crenshaw
For much of the past month, Washington television and radio airwaves have been filled with advertisements featuring the images or voices of victims of asbestos-related illnesses.
In some, victims implore viewers or listeners to help them head off a congressional attempt to deny them their day in court so they can sue the companies they hold responsible for their plight. In others, people implore viewers and listeners to urge Congress to come to their assistance because they say the courts are too clogged to be of any use.
The focus of these ads is a bill on the Senate floor this week that would create a nationwide compensation fund to pay victims' medical bills and other damages -- while cutting their lawyers out of the payoff.
The lawyers, the victims they represent and other interests argue that the bill, crafted by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), is hopelessly inadequate. With a potential payout of $114 billion, they regard the bill as a bailout for asbestos producers and their insurers, and "an outrageous attack on the rights of asbestos victims, leaving them without the help they need while shutting them out of the legal system," said Jeff Blum, executive director of USAction, an advocacy group on the lawyers' side.
Blum's group organized a press conference on Capitol Hill yesterday featuring a group of victims and widows of victims of mesothelioma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer that is almost always fatal and is tied to asbestos exposure. They included Sue Vento, widow of Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), a 12-term member of Congress who died of the disease in 2000. The group urged the Senate to defeat the bill.
Julie Rochman, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Insurance Association, said her side would have a group of victims here today to meet with members on Capitol Hill.
Victims "should be heard," she said. "We agree . . . they need quick, fair compensation."
She said the present system, in which claims go through the courts, is not doing a good job of getting compensation to those who really need it.
The bill as introduced would pay as much as $124 billion (counting $10 billion in contingency provisions), and if that turns out not to be enough, victims who cannot get payment from the trust can return to the courts, Rochman said. "There is not a single victim who would be left holding the bag," she said.
The bill would establish medical criteria for payment, "and that's promising," she said.
Other issues, such as how to deal with pending claims, remain unresolved. Opponents say the bill would wipe out judgments victims have already won; proponents say that isn't so. "Nobody is going to argue a widow who has a final judgment . . . should be set back at the start of the claims process," Rochman said, but insurers oppose mass "inventory claims . . . where there aren't even real people attached to the claims."
Senate aides said the fate of the measure is uncertain. Unless the two sides can resolve their differences, the bill's backers are unlikely to muster enough support to shut off debate, and the bill would probably be set aside at least for the time being, the aides said.
One area about which both sides agree is the seriousness of the situation. Asbestos was widely used in American industry for much of the 20th century, and even now has not been completely banned. It was employed in fireproofing, insulation, automobile parts such as brake shoes and other applications where resistance to heat was important. Asbestos consists of tiny silicate mineral fibers that, when inhaled, cause a variety of ailments as well as mesothelioma.
Companies that produced asbestos are accused of concealing the mineral's danger long after they knew of it. Lawsuits by victims have pushed more than 70 companies into bankruptcy, and the number of claims continues to grow.
A study by the Environmental Working Group, an organization opposing the bill, figures that 10,000 people are dying every year from asbestos-related illnesses, and 100,000 are developing nonfatal ailments.