Legislation to establish avenue for payouts from fund
By Jessica Centers and Matthew Korade
Congress has introduced asbestos lawsuit legislation every year in the last decade as the debate continues between victims’ rights and protection of businesses.
Closed-door negotiations have made headway on a retooled version the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2004 (S. 2290), sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Supporters expect a bill, which would establish one national trust fund to take asbestos claims, to hit the Senate when legislators return in April from their spring break.
"We’re cautiously optimistic," said Mike Baroody of the Asbestos Alliance, a coalition of asbestos manufacturers.
The legislation would establish a Department of Labor agency to administer the trust fund. The special interests settled on $140 billion for projected settlements over the trust’s 50-year life span.
The Congressional Budget Office says $140 billion was not enough to cover all the liabilities in Hatch’s earlier bill. According to its estimate, that proposed trust would run $16 billion in the red.
What worries companies and victims the most is what will happen if the trust can’t pay all claims.
"Are they (claimants) given back their legal right to go after the people who poisoned them?" said Carlton Carl, of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. "Or are the companies and insurers being forced to contribute additional money to compensate them, or are they left out in the cold?"
The draft bill contains "sunset provisions" that trigger a return to the courts if claims go unpaid for an extended period of time.
Trial lawyers have pushed for that, said Ed Sherman, a member of the American Bar Association’s task force on asbestos litigation and a Tulane University law professor. The previous version of the bill would have ended asbestos litigation forever, he said.
"I don’t think anyone wants to see it go back to the courts," Sherman said.
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