Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Specter Files Asbestos Comp Bill

After years of meetings, negotiations and false starts, Senator Arlen Specter has finally introduced an asbestos compensation bill. The bill calls for a $140 billion asbestos compensation fund. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) is one of the co-sponsors, but many Republicans announced opposition to the bill.

Judging from the critics and supporters, there still may be a long way to go:

  • The AFL-CIO has called for changes in the bill while the United Auto Workers backs it. According to an AFL-CIO press release,
    The draft proposal includes some important improvements such as increases in award levels for some disease categories and a bar against any liens on workers compensation awards. At the same time, however, the draft has a number of serious deficiencies that must be corrected. These include the elimination of compensation for a large group of lung cancer victims, without allowing these individuals to document asbestos exposure through CT scans, and the absence of remedies for victims during the startup period before the Fund is able to pay claims. In addition, there are a set of issues, such as the statute of limitations, preemption and the treatment of claims if the Fund sunsets, that will determine whether the compensation system works as intended for deserving claimants.
  • Insurers, who would have to pay $46 billion to the fund,
    complained the draft would let some asbestos injury claims leak back to the courts instead of being paid by the fund. It also criticized a provision that would prohibit liens on workers' compensation awards to asbestos victims who are also compensated by the fund.
  • Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate minority whip, says the $1.1 million award for victims of mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos, is too low. Sen. Durbin also dislikes a provision limiting plaintiffs' attorneys fees to 5% of awards to victims.

  • Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn said he could not support the proposal as written, and Republicans were divided over it.

  • Trial lawyers, who are big contributors to the Democratic party, oppose the bill.

  • The "Asbestos Study Group" whose members include General Electric Co., General Motors, Honeywell International Inc. and Viacom Inc. has come out in support of the plan.

  • The bill is strongly opposed by the Advisory Board of the Mt. Sinai - Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. An article summarizing their position can be found on the NYCOSH website here.
The bill creates a trust fund to pay the victims of asbestos. Workers would no longer be able to sue companies for asbestos disease. Former asbestos companies (or their successors), as well as insurance companies would pay into the fund. The bill has been slowed by debates over how large the fund should be, what medical criteria should be used to determine who is eligible, whether workers should be able to go back to court if the fund runs dry, what to do about workers who smoked and were exposed to asbestos, workers who were exposed to asbestos and silica, and numerous other issues, many of which are still outstanding.

NYCOSH has posted the bill here.

More on the pros and cons of the debate later.

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