Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Asbestos Comp Follies, Continued

As I reported earlier this week, Orin Hatch’s (R-UT) asbestos compensation bill was approved by the Senate committee. Aside from Diane Feinstein (D-NY), all Democrats on the committee opposed the bill. All Republicans voted in favor, except for Jon Kyl (R-AZ) who abstained. But no one seems to happy, except Halliburton and a few other companies.

The AFL-CIO opposes the bill:
The unions argue that manufacturers and insurers should pay more into the fund to ensure that claimants receive as much as under the tort system. But industry says the bill would provide more compensation because lawyers' fees would be curtailed under the Hatch bill.

"The legislation has sound medical criteria but on the core issue of providing victims fair compensation for their disease it doesn't meet the mark," said Peg Seminario of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organisation for labour unions.
Democrats aren’t happy:
Several committee Democrats, including Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, said they liked the idea of a national trust fund, but that Hatch's plan does not provide enough money for victims.

At the hearing, the panel voted to raise the payment for victims of mesothelioma, which is unique to asbestos exposure, to $1 million. But Kennedy noted that payments to lung cancer victims who have been exposed to asbestos will be limited to $150,000.

"That is outrageous," Kennedy said. "The real crisis that confronts us is not an 'asbestos litigation crisis.' It is an asbestos-induced disease crisis."
Insurers are also opposed:
Insurers believe that any extra funding should be provided by the manufacturing industry, which used the carcinogenic material for insulation in the 1970s.

"We are opposed to the bill," said Gary Karr of the American Insurance Association. "We believe the contingency funding should be paid by the industrial defendants."
As I mentioned above though, Halliburton is very happy:
Over its 27-year life, the fund is supposed to have $108 billion to pay people who develop cancer or other health impairments from their exposure to asbestos in the workplace.

The money in the trust fund would come from about 8,500 companies that made or sold asbestos products directly or through their subsidiaries, as well as the companies' insurers. But most of the firms would pay no more than $25 million a year.

The arrangement could prove a windfall for Halliburton and its insurers.

In February, the company reached a "global settlement" of 200,000 asbestos claims. Under the deal, Halliburton and its insurers agreed to pay $4.2 billion to settle the claims.

Dresser Industries, a Halliburton subsidiary, had incurred the asbestos liability through another company it once owned.

But the Senate bill, the fate of which remains uncertain, would cancel all such pending settlements.

At $25 million a year, Halliburton would pay $675 million over the 27-year life of the federal trust fund.
Other unhappy parties include the intended beneficiaries of the pending settlements that would be canceled under this legislation:
An estimated 1.3 million workers in construction and industry face "significant asbestos exposure on the job," according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Victims are not always older workers who labored in shipyards or factories.

Angela Ruhl, 39, of Garden Grove has two teenage children and suffers from mesothelioma, the asbestos-induced cancer that is usually fatal.

Her uncle worked at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, and she believes she was exposed through him and his work clothes, which were laundered at her home.

"I know it's incurable," she said of her disease, although she has responded well to several experimental drugs.

After being shocked by the diagnosis of the medical condition, Ruhl said she was jolted again when she learned that the pending legislation could cancel the settlement she and her lawyer had worked out with the unnamed companies that made the asbestos.

"I was dumbfounded. I didn't think they could do this retroactively," she said.

"We have received a settlement and signed the agreement, but this would cancel it because the money has not been paid yet."
Trial Lawyers are also opposed to the bill because they would no longer make money off of asbestos litigation. Nothing wrong with this, according to Hatch:
Some people are making a very good living off this broken system," Hatch said during Thursday's daylong hearing. "They are the ones hurting the system for a quick buck and don't want their lottery taken away."
Yes, “greedy” trial lawyers are easy targets, but lets look at the world. What or who is out there really making corporations pay – pay so that it really hurts them – for injuring, killing and making workers sick? Not OSHA with its anemic fines and almost complete inability to issue new regulations. Workers alone certainly don’t have the money to hire attorneys and pay their fees and they can’t sue their employers. It’s really only the system where attorneys get a percentage of the money they win for their clients that has made companies think twice about producing dangerous products. And it’s often the money that these firms make off these lawsuits that allow them get involved in less profitable activities to benefit workers.

Bottom line is that this bill isn’t going anywhere as it stands now. A compromise will have to be reached that keeps the liable companies in business but still provides adequate compensation to current and future victims.

We should all just remember that this whole tragedy is a result of decades of corporate lies and cover-ups about the health effects of asbestos – a deadly mineral that is still being used in the United States. And when you look at the situation with chemical testing and regulation in this country, it’s hard to see that these same companies have learned their lesson.