An AFL-CIO official told the Senate Labor subcommittee yesterday that he is "skeptical" about a plan devised by asbestos producers and insurers to settle claims by workers exposed to asbestos, although the plan has been hailed by the industry as a solution to work-place health disputes.
David Silberman, associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO, said labor is concerned that the producers and insurers, who in the past have pointed fingers at each other in asbestos-related court battles, "will use their new-found harmony to wage a unified war of attrition against victims who seek compensation."
But the producers and insurers defended the plan, saying it will get money to workers exposed to asbestos in a more timely and less costly fashion than lawsuits have.
Asbestos has been shown to cause cancer and lung diseases in those exposed to its fibers. An estimated 8,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases, including shipyard workers, such as those in Tidewater Virginia, who were exposed to asbestos on a daily basis for decades. The Senate subcommittee has been holding hearings on the problem.
More than 30,000 asbestos-related lawsuits have been filed, according to the manufacturers and insurers, but less than 4,000 have been settled. The two groups have spent about $1 billion in such cases, but only 37 cents out of each $1 has actually gone to victims, according to a Rand Corp. study.
Under a plan tentatively agreed to last month by several major producers and insurers, a procedure would be established whereby workers could negotiate claims instead of going to court. The agreement is to be completed and signed May 29. Those involved hope to have most of the major producers and insurers agree to the plan by that time.
The negotiating unit, which will be based in Boston and have a branch in San Francisco, will review cases and award money to those it decides have legitimate claims. Workers still will be able to go to court if they are dissatisfied.
Silberman said that although the agreement might put an end to costly court battles between insurers and producers, it will not necessarily help victims. He said it is unclear what criteria will be used to decide whether a claim is legitimate, what the awards will be, or if the money saved from legal fees will go to aid victims.
DeRoy C. Thomas, chairman of the Hartford Insurance Group, said one problem with the current system is that a shipyard employe may have been exposed decades ago, but may not have learned of an illness until a few years ago. That makes it impossible for the victim to pinpoint the exposure dates or identify the manufacturer or insurer involved, which often means that several companies are sued at once.