Monday, April 19, 2004

Asbestos Comp Bill Comes To A Vote

The Senate has begun its long anticipated debate over the ultimately doomed asbestos compensation bill, S. 2290, "The Fairness in Asbestos Injury and Resolution Act of 2004.

There is pretty much universal agreement that something needs to be done about the asbestos compensation mess. Under the current system, the courts are clogged and the system has trouble apportioning compensation between those who are currently ill versus those who may, at some future date become ill. Most also agree that some kind of compensation fund is the best way to go. (I have written previously about the bill here, here, here and here.)

The problem, of course, is the size of the fund. Intense negotiations between industry representatives, labor, trial lawyers and victims groups have been taking place for almost a year. Senator Orin Hatch (R-UT) introduced a similar bill last year that was passed by committee, but neither labor, the trial lawyers, nor the insurance industry were happy with it. While the AFL-CIO is in favor of passing a decent bill, Hatch’s original version was much too small to adequately compensate asbestos victims. Even the insurance industry wasn’t too happy with Hatch’s original version, feeling that it was too big. Only the companies being sued, like Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s old employer, were happy, because they wouldn't have to pay as much to asbestos victims.

So a “compromise” agreement was reached -– between the insurers and manufacturers -- but no labor. What did they agree to? A trust fund that was $40 billion smaller than the already-too-small version agreed to originally by the Senate Judiciary Committee. As one labor observer noted, that move didn’t even pass the laugh test.

The bill currently being debated is similar to the “compromise” version unacceptable to labor and most Senate Democrats. But don't worry, Halliburton is happy.
Frist and Hatch have been meeting secretly with - guess who? - asbestos companies like Halliburton and the insurance company honchos to put obscenely small limits on the fund. Their bill would funnel $113 billion into the trust over the next 27 years, amended down from an original $150 billion proposal. That figure sounds like a lot, but actually breaks down into miniscule benefits for the thousands of asbestos victims throughout the country. And that's not mentioning the thousands of American workers who will undoubtedly come down with diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma (an incurable form of lung cancer) in the years to come.

There are 200,000 claims pending against Halliburton, for example, for a total of $4.3 billion. Under the Frist-Hatch bill, the corporation would be required to pay just $546 million over the next 27 years.
Even Hatch now agrees that the bill is not expected to pass. Most Democrats are opposed, and even some conservative Republicans and business associations are opposed to an expensive bailout.
In a letter to Hatch last week, Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, said, “Many wholesaler-distributors and others face larger out-of-pocket asbestos-related costs under [Hatch’s proposal] than they do under the tort system now in place.”
Nevertheless, Hatch and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist are bringing it up for a vote anyway, hoping to make it an election year issue.

Hatch blames the trial lawyers for the bill's expected defeat.
Hatch said Democrats are afraid that presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will miss out on $50 million in campaign funds from the trial lawyers, adding it would be “pretty pathetic that they would let these hundreds of thousands of people go down the drain without just compensation, which we have in this bill, because of politics.”

Hatch said on the Senate floor that trial lawyers stand to gain at least $60 billion from asbestos litigation if the current system is not reformed.
But allow me to repeat my previous defense of trail lawyers
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.
Once again, despite the fact that all players see the need for an asbestos compensation fund, the greed of the insurers and the companies with asbestos liability seems to have scuttled the whole process.

I’m sure you Senators would be happy to hear your opinion. If you don’t already know how to get in touch with them, check out the “Contact Congress” box on the right side of this page.