Critics slam proposed asbestos bill, say victims will die before their claims are processed
Proposed legislation requiring asbestos bankruptcy trusts to open their books to defendants in civil lawsuits will overwhelm the claims process and “run out the clock” on critically ill victims, opponents of the bill say.
The “Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act of 2012,” or HR 4369, is currently being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would require bankruptcy trusts to file quarterly reports disclosing claims and exposure allegations and to make that information available to defense attorneys during discovery in civil lawsuits.
About 100 companies that produced or used asbestos in their products have declared bankruptcy due to personal-injury claims for asbestos-related death or illness. At least 60 bankruptcy trusts, with a total of about $37 billion in assets, have been created to pay claims.
Supporters of HR 4369, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the pro-business American Legislative Council, say it would prevent plaintiffs from collecting damage awards from both the trusts and civil court system.
Opponents maintain it would place new burdens on the trusts and make it harder for those sickened with asbestos-related illness to pursue claims. About 10,000 Americans die each year from asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, an always-fatal malignancy that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart or abdomen. Symptoms don't typically appear until the disease has reached advanced stage, and most patients die within 18 months of diagnosis.
In a June 4 letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, said the bill is designed “to swamp the claims process with paperwork so that victims seeking compensation may never collect.”
“The only thing transparent about this bill is the blatant support for the industry’s decades’ long effort to run out the clock on a victim’s ability to collect a claim before he or she dies,” said Heather White, chief of staff and general counsel for the group.
“Touted as a sunshine proposal, the bill fundamentally fails to understand health problems related to asbestos exposure and how the legal system compensates victims of asbestos disease,” White wrote. “If signed into law, the FACT Act would significantly delay or deny justice for thousands of victims of the great asbestos tragedy. The public deserves better."
Linda Reinstein, head of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a victims' advocacy group, said the proposed legislation “creates another burden for patients and families to overcome during an extremely difficult time.
“Delayed or denied compensation would gravely impact patients’ pursuit of medical care and justice,” she said. “Americans need legislation that will prevent environmental and occupational asbestos-caused diseases and stop the continued import of asbestos across our border to meet manufacturing demands. As consumers and workers, it is Americans that deserve transparency to prevent exposure.”
Meanwhile, the sponsor of legislation, Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz, amended the bill this week to require defendants in civil lawsuits to pay discovery fees, ensuring no extra costs for the trusts, according the LegalNewsLine.com.
Quayle, along with fellow Republican Dennis Ross of Florida and Jim Matheson, D-Utah, introduced the bill in April, claiming the trusts are being depleted by fraudulent claims.
However, an analysis released last fall by the General Accounting Office found no evidence that the victims or their attorneys had defrauded the trusts.
“Although the possibility exists that a claimant could file the same medical evidence and altered work histories with different trusts, each trust’s focus is to ensure that each claim meets the criteria defined in its [trust rules], meaning the claimant has met the requisite medical and exposure histories to the satisfaction of the trustees,” the report says.
“Of the trust officials that we interviewed that conducted audits, none indicated that these audits had identified cases of fraud.”
At least two states are considering legislation similar to the proposed federal bill. In Ohio, the senate has yet to vote on a bill passed by the state House of Representatives in January. Oklahoma's House Judiciary Committee is considering a bill called the “Asbestos Claims Transparency Act,” which was approved by the senate in March.
In Louisiana, a bill that would have required plaintiffs in asbestos lawsuits to provide a list of all potential defendants before their cases went to trial was rejected by a senate committee.