Yesterday the U.S. House Judiciary Committee passed a controversial bill that many say will provide protections for corporations that manufacture asbestos, while stripping victims of asbestos exposure of their rights. Asbestos exposure has long been linked to the development of many asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis, a severe scarring of the lungs, and mesothelioma, a cancer that affect the lining of the lungs or abdomen and, sometimes, the heart. There is currently no cure for mesothelioma.
The legislation is H.R. 982, the “Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act of 2013. Ironically, in its name the bill claims to have a goal of increasing transparency in the process of filing claims related to compensating victims of asbestos exposure. However, opponents of the bill, including organizations including the American Association for Justice (AAJ), Alliance for Justice, Center for Justice & Democracy and Public Citizen, argue the legislation will actually complicate and delay the claims process for asbestos victims, while providing additional protections for asbestos manufacturers and distributors.
According to the AAJ, “H.R. 982 would require private asbestos bankruptcy trusts to publicly release extensive individual information about asbestos victims and would slow down asbestos cases by allowing asbestos defendants to bury the trusts in information requests, no matter how unnecessary or irrelevant.”
The trusts were established by Congressional legislation in 1994 especially for the asbestos industry, allowing them to set up trusts to compensate asbestos victims for the injuries they sustained as a result of exposure to their products. The logic behind this move was to allow companies to reorganize under bankruptcy laws while still providing a fund for victims.
In an open letter to the House Judiciary Committee dated May 20 (prior to their vote), representatives on behalf of the Center for Justice & Democracy wrote, “While these proposals masquerade as mechanisms designed to advance evenhanded justice, they are, in fact, obvious efforts by asbestos litigation defendants to do an end- run around uniform rules of discovery in the civil justice system and reverse principles of tort law established hundreds of years ago.”
The letter goes on to note that the bill would require the trusts to publicly disclose private claimant information, and allow the asbestos companies to demand additional information from the trust at any time for any reason rather than following acceptable rules for discovery. This, they say, will “place unnecessary and costly burdens on asbestos trusts, delay badly-needed compensation for claimants, invade privacy rights of asbestos victims, and give solvent defendants in asbestos lawsuits special benefits not accorded to claimants.”
Their plea fell on deaf ears, and the committee voted to move the FACT Act forward. In a statement, AAJ CEO Linda Lipsen said, “It is beyond hypocritical that the same corporations that hid the dangers of asbestos from the public for decades have asked Congress for ‘transparency’ in order to avoid accountability.”
Despite evidence that has existed as early as the 1930s that asbestos exposure poses a serious health hazard, asbestos is still not banned in the United States. Thousands of people have been exposed to asbestos in industries including ship building and construction, and through secondary exposure from family members who worked with asbestos. Asbestos is present in consumer products, and is a hidden danger in homes and other buildings, released into the air during demolition, remodeling and renovation, putting home owners and workers at risk.
Natural disasters such as Super Storm Sandy placed rescue workers, home owners and construction crews at risk when sifting through the rubble of devastated homes. The tragedy of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11 was broadened by the spread of asbestos and other chemicals when the buildings collapsed, exposing first responders, rescuers and cleanup workers to a toxic cloud of dust and debris.
It is a sad certainty that there will be more victims of asbestos. Will they have any rights left in the civil justice system against those whose products caused them injury?