Asbestos Settlement Advances
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Legislation to settle tens of thousands of asbestos lawsuits cleared a major Senate hurdle yesterday, in a setback for Democratic foes and their trial lawyer allies, who are waging a feisty opposition.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday that he would take steps to prevent the Senate from debating the bill and predicted that some Republicans would join him in the effort. But Reid reversed his position when it became clear he had little backing, and last night the Senate voted 98 to 1 to move forward, with Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) casting the lone negative vote.
"We focused attention on what some believe are the flaws in the process leading to Senate consideration of the bill and the flaws of the bill itself," Reid said, while indicating that he still opposes the measure. "Now we're ready to debate the bill on its merits."
The bill would create a $140 billion trust fund to compensate victims for asbestos-related medical problems, financed by asbestos manufacturers and their insurers, who could no longer be sued in court. Attorneys' fees would be capped, and payments to victims would be based on the level of exposure and type of disease.
Despite its vast complexities and narrow focus, the bill is politically charged because so many special interests have a stake in it. Major manufacturers, unions, insurance companies and trial lawyers are bitterly divided over whether the fund is fair and workable -- creating conflicting pressures on lawmakers and making the outcome difficult to predict.
Even with Reid strongly opposed to it, the bill has bipartisan support. It was co-authored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and that panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.).
The controversy has generated millions of dollars in lobbying fees, and for Specter, in particular, it has become a bit of an obsession. The chairman has held 36 meetings on the issue in his office over the past 2 1/2 years, mediated by a federal judge and attended by representatives of every major interest group.
"This bill has been subjected to more analysis and more investigation and more consideration" than any other in Senate history, Specter said.
Reid countered that the fund was "doomed to failure" and said "one would have to search far and wide to find a bill as bad as this."
Although medical researchers began to link asbestos to lung cancer as early as the 1930s, the fibrous mineral was widely used in insulation, tiles and fire-prevention materials until the 1970s, when trial lawyers began to bring lawsuits on behalf of sick asbestos workers. As the cases piled up, it became increasingly clear that asbestos companies had known about the possible health dangers for decades but had kept quiet.
What began as a courtroom crusade for justice has evolved into a legal juggernaut that has forced scores of companies into bankruptcy, with no end in sight to medical claims from asbestos exposure. The central question is whether the proposed fund represents an improvement over the tort approach to legal remedies -- or whether it creates more problems than it solves.
Opponents, including the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the AFL-CIO, numerous insurers and some companies, maintain that the fund is poorly constructed. They say it would provide unfair levels of compensation and is based on shaky cost analysis. "More needs to be done before the bill can fulfill its promise to provide fair and timely compensation," AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney wrote in a Feb. 2 letter to senators.
But supporters, including asbestos companies and some unions and trial lawyers, contend the status quo is unsustainable. "I'm worried that men and women who have legitimate claims are running out of options," said Richard Scruggs, a Mississippi trial lawyer who has represented thousands of asbestos victims and supports the Specter-Leahy bill. "Many of my close friends are mad at me right now." But Scruggs added: "It's time to get this one over with."