Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Asbestos Comp Vote Today

Call Your Senators

The U.S. Senate will vote today on the Frist/Hatch asbestos company bailout bill. If it passes, huge companies like Halliburton will save millions of dollars that should be going to the millions of asbestos victims who inhaled the toxic material for decades after the industry knew it was killing them.

You can contact your Senator on the right side of this page or via e-mail here and clicking on your senators’ e-mail addresses. Or you can telephone the Senate switchboard by dialing 202-224-3121 and asking for your senators’ offices.

The New York Times has also come out strongly against the bill
With its glaring shortcomings, the bill is widely expected to fail, yet Senator Frist presses ahead. Business interests are exercising their election-year muscle for a vote, while the G.O.P. further pursues its campaign to rein in pro-Democratic trial lawyers by crimping citizens' right to sue.

A fair trust-fund approach is the best solution to the asbestos problem, as it would expedite payments to victims and unclog the court system. But the victims' compensation limits in the Senate bill are too small to justify closing out the right to sue. And the proposed fund of up to $124 billion from insurance and defendant companies already seems inadequate. The flawed bill, backed by the White House, would mean windfalls for companies like Halliburton, as it would cap their liability at a lower dollar amount than they would probably pay to settle these cases. Senator Frist should end the great rush and allow time for honest compromise.
The asbestos bill is just the first volley in the battle by Bush and the Republican party to accomplish one of their top priorities: “tort reform.” For the non-lawyers out there, “torts” are basically the ability of citizens or workers to sue a company that produces a product that harms them. Most recently, for example, a jury awarded $20 million to a worker exposed to lung-destroying popcorn butter flavoring. Given the growing impotence of the regulatory process in this country, the ability of workers and consumers to sue producers is one of the only tools the common folk still have to protect themselves. And for this reason, business interests have succeeded in getting the Republican party to promote tort reform to the top of their political agenda.

I wrote earlier this week about the asbestos compensation bill (Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act, known as the FAIR (sic) Act) coming before the Senate this week. Paul Brodeur, who has written several noteworthy books about this nation’s asbestos scandal that has doomed millions to early death and disability, has written an article in the Nation with the purpose of “Educating Senator Frist,” notes first that Frist is historically challenged which may account for his rather questionable view of the asbestos producers as victims.
In a speech before the Senate in November, Frist described the Johns-Manville Corporation and W.R. Grace & Company as "reputable companies" that had been driven into bankruptcy because of asbestos litigation. What he apparently did not know was that Johns-Manville had not only been aware since the early 1930s that incurable asbestos lung disease was disabling and killing its own workers but also had instituted a corporate policy not to inform sick workers about X-ray findings showing that they had developed asbestos disease.

In an infamous memorandum, the medical director of Johns-Manville described his company's policy toward unimpaired workers with X-ray evidence of lung damage as follows: "The fibrosis of this disease is irreversible and permanent so that eventually compensation will be paid to each of these men. But as long as the man is not disabled it is felt that he should not be told of his condition so that he can live and work in peace and the Company can benefit by his many years of experience." Is it any wonder that when presented with such evidence from internal company documents, jurors in what Senator Frist calls "the flawed tort system" began meting out punitive damages against Johns-Manville for outrageous and reckless misconduct?
Brodeur also goes after Frist, a surgeon, for suggesting that smokers who worked with asbestos are somehow not deserving of compensation. He urges Frist to check out studies that show prove the synergy between smoking and asbestos exposure (“Synergy” is where the effects of two or more substances multiply the effects far more than just adding the individual effects together). Brodeur cites studies that show that
nonsmoking asbestos workers develop lung cancer five times more often than nonsmoking workers not exposed to asbestos, that cigarette-smoking workers not exposed to asbestos develop lung cancer ten times as often as nonsmoking workers not exposed to asbestos, and that workers who both smoke and are exposed to asbestos develop lung cancer fifty to sixty times as readily as workers who neither smoke nor are exposed to asbestos.
Brodeur concludes with about the tort system that I have made many times before, in reference to trial lawyers:
After all, it is this system that exposed the misdeeds of the asbestos manufacturers to begin with, and provided the only true measure of justice and compensation for tens of thousands of sick asbestos workers and the families of dead asbestos workers, who had been betrayed for decades by their "reputable" employers.
Indeed, it was not OSHA or EPA asbestos standards that essentially eliminated asbestos manufacturing (but not use) from this country, and it isn’t OSHA or EPA regs that will hopefully make a company think twice about covering up damning information and studies about the toxicity of their products. It is the fact that they can be successfully sued for millions of dollars. It may not be a neat or tidy system, but with the success that Republicans and their business supporters have had gumming up the regulatory and enforcement systems, the tort system may soon be all that workers, consumers or communities have to defend their health and their lives.

Update: The NY Times reports here and here that after the expected defeat of the first vote tomorrow, Frist has agreed to re-open negotiations for a bipartisan bill.