The floor of a congressional hearing room was the scene of heavy trading yesterday as the government and the asbestos industry tried to dump what each said was the other's share of responsibility for paying victims of asbestos-related diseases.
The currency of trade was blame, led by a warning from Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) that the industry will not succeed in persuading the federal government to increase its liability in asbestos disease claim cases, now limited to former government employes, according to administration officials.
"You have a snowball's chance in hell of that happening," Miller told officials of Manville Corp. who appeared before his labor standards subcommittee yesterday.
The Manville officials wanted to explain why they have filed for court protection under the bankruptcy laws in the face of mounting lawsuits from people -- many of them the company's former employes -- who say they contracted respiratory and other illnesses in the manufacture or use of Manville's asbestos products.
The Manville representatives also reiterated their belief that the government is as culpable as private industry for the moral and legal nightmare involved in resolving outstanding asbestos-victim claims.
G. Earl Parker, senior vice-president of Manville, the world's largest producer of asbestos, said the federal government "in every moral, social and legal sense . . . is responsible for a substantial number of the asbestos disease cases we see today." That is so because "the single largest group of persons excessively exposed to asbestos fiber were workers in government-owned or -controlled shipyards" during World War II, Parker said.
Some 6,000 ships and boats were built and another 65,000 were refitted between 1939 and 1949, all of them with major asbestos content, Parker said.
As a result, the government should "be held to the same standards of conduct as private manufacturers" and should share the burden of paying claims and legal expenses involved in the asbestos cases, Parker said.
Both Miller and J. Paul McGrath, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil litigation, disagreed with that argument. McGrath said the government "has no . . . liability to the victims of asbestos-related diseases" whose injuries resulted from private employment.
"If they were not government employes, then they must look to other workmen's compensation schemes or to litigation against their employer or others for compensation," McGrath said.
Said Miller: "Let none of us be confused further by industry's allegation that much of the blame for the bankruptcies is due to the failure of government to meet its financial responsibilities. The government, in fact, is paying millions of dollars a year to hundreds of asbestos victims who were federal employes and for whom we are responsible."
Manville is blaming the government for its "refusal to accept potentially billions of dollars in liability for victims who are the responsibility of private industry," Miller said.
He said industry should pay for its own mistakes, and he has introduced legislation that would create an abestos-victim compensation program that would be "fully funded by the responsible manufacturers and employers."
That approach does not sit well with Manville and UNR Industries Inc., a Chicago-based company that also has filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy laws because of mounting asbestos-disease-related lawsuits.
UNR Chief Executive Officer David Leavitt said his company is the product of a merger with another firm, Unarco Industries Inc., that had stopped its asbestos operations in 1970.