May 27, 2005 – The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill yesterday to protect major corporations from hundreds of thousands of potential lawsuits by establishing an extra-judicial system to compensate victims of asbestos exposure.
The bill is designed to offer victims an orderly compensation process while alleviating the mounting litigation burden of asbestos-related civil suits. But advocates for asbestos victims contend that the proposed trust fund plan is inadequate and would leave many victims and their families without access to reparations or legal recourse.
The "Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005," introduced by Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) and sent to the Senate floor on a 13-to-5 committee vote, would create a trust fund of $140 billion, financed by insurers and asbestos industry corporations.
The proposed system would essentially relieve companies of liability for injuries caused by occupational or environmental asbestos exposure, including cases of liability for egregious action or inaction on the part of management.
By removing injury claims from jurisdiction of the courts, the legislation would offer victims a more predictable, but less individualized mechanism for obtaining compensation. Other clauses in the bill would ban most asbestos-containing products and provide limited special protections for residents of Libby, Montana, where asbestos-related disease has been especially widespread.
The watchdog organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) has estimated that 10,000 people per year die of diseases related to asbestos, a carcinogenic industrial toxin used in insulation and other building materials.
Victims of asbestos-related injuries, such as lung damage and the rare cancer mesothelioma, could seek awards ranging up to $1.1 million, but the eligibility rules and award amount would vary widely. The formula for determining the level of compensation would be based on the time and degree of exposure, the claimant's smoking history, and medical test results. The claims bureaucracy would be administered by the Department of Labor, and a panel of physicians would oversee the evaluation process.
Victims' advocates have criticized the bill as insufficient to fully compensate asbestos victims for damages, claiming that the medical criteria are so stringent that many would be unfairly excluded from the fund, and that restricting victims' rights to file lawsuits would protect corporations at the expense of public health.
Industry groups, meanwhile, have complained that the bill, by allowing victims to pursue their claims in court if the system breaks down or goes bankrupt, does not offer corporations complete, permanent immunity from future lawsuits.
The EWG issued a statement protesting the legislation as a way for industry to escape responsibility for creating an environmental health hazard. "The very companies that the courts have repeatedly found guilty of killing their workers and lying about it," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the EWG, "have now dictated the terms of this bill."