Virginia passes bill to limit legal claims on one firm

The proposed bill to limit legal liability for one firm is one of few that House Speaker William J. Howell has thrown his weight behind.
The proposed bill to limit legal liability for one firm is one of few that House Speaker William J. Howell has thrown his weight behind. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

RICHMOND -- The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill that would help protect a single Fortune 500 company from asbestos lawsuits -- a proposal that House Speaker William J. Howell has been quietly maneuvering to have his chamber support for weeks.

The powerful Republican leader took the unusual step of pleading his case to his caucus behind closed doors, said several delegates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. Howell also personally visited individual delegates, including Democrats, and encouraged them to back the measure as a "personal favor," according to several sources. And he reshuffled the committee that was considering the bill -- which it approved last week after it was unexpectedly killed in committee two years in a row.

As he presided over the debate on the House floor this week, an unusually curt Howell told one Democratic delegate who stood to speak on the bill to sit down, and ignored a question from another.

The measure passed an initial vote on Monday, but was defeated unexpectedly Tuesday on a tie vote after some Republicans switched positions and others, who were absent from the earlier vote because of snow, sided against it. Under House rules, the measure was able to be heard again and, on its final try, it passed 49 to 48.

Three lawmakers, including Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), switched their votes to support. Albo said several House leaders, including Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), persuaded him to back the bill in order to win approval of his own priorities, including funding for Northern Virginia schools, later in the legislative session.

The proposal -- one of the few that Howell put his considerable power behind -- would limit liability for Philadelphia-based Crown Cork & Seal, which employs 300 workers at plants in Virginia. The bill's fate in the Democratic-controlled Senate is not certain.

Howell, 66, of Stafford, declined to be interviewed for this article. But his chief of staff, G. Paul Nardo, said the speaker pursued the proposal because of his long-standing interest in tort reform and because of his involvement with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has been pushing the Crown Cork bill in state legislatures across the nation since 2006. Nardo provided copies of ALEC's model asbestos legislation as well as the group's backup materials supporting the bill. Howell served as the group's national chairman last year.

Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), who introduced the bill on Howell's behalf, said the proposal continues a decade-long trend to limit litigation through caps on medical malpractice cases, time limits on lawsuits and other techniques.

"I thought it might be a good type of tort relief for Virginia,'' said Kilgore, a member of ALEC for 15 years. "It gets someone out of the mix of those asbestos cases that really shouldn't be in the mix in the first place."

Greg Marston, state legislative director for the Teamsters union, which opposes the bill, said Howell wants to set a precedent so other companies could win limits on liability, too. "It's his bill,'' he said. "He is using his power to threaten delegates to vote for the bill."

ALEC's role

ALEC is a pro-business, free-market group that ghostwrites bills on a variety on subjects that are pushed by its members -- both legislators as well as private companies, which pay thousands of dollars to become members of ALEC, giving them a say in what legislation the group backs. Crown Cork, which has given $8,000 to Howell's political action committee since 2008, is a member of ALEC, according to company officials and state records.

Since ALEC wrote and began pushing asbestos legislation in 2006, 11 states have passed similar bills, said Amy Kjose, director of the group's civil justice task force. It's being considered in five other states, including Virginia.

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