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Asbestos compensation legislation fails in Senate

May 7, 2004
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The U.S. Senate defeated a bill in late April that would have set up a special asbestos court to hear all claims for damages by injured workers and others against companies that manufacture and use asbestos-containing material or have done so in the past. The vote, which was on a procedural motion that requires 60 votes to pass, was 50 in favor and 47 against. All Senate Republicans voted for the bill; only one Senate Democrat, Zell Miller of Georgia, voted for it.

The bill was the tenth legislative proposal to limit the liability of asbestos companies to be defeated sine 1977.

The Democrats opposed the bill on several grounds:

  • The court would have paid all claims out of a trust fund established by asbestos-using companies and their insurance companies, but the total amount to be paid into the fund is less than the anticipated value of the claims of injured workers.

  • The court would pay claims according to a schedule set by law that calls for payments that are substantially less than those that injured workers now win in court.

  • Many injured workers and others who are now eligible for damages would be ineligible under the asbestos court’s rules.

  • Many large corporations with substantial liability for asbestos damages would have those liabilities cancelled and pay much less into the trust fund than the damages they have already pledged to pay.

  • Without any mechanism to ensure that the court’s proceedings would be simple and fair, injured workers would likely be at a disadvantage because they would have no access to legal representation.

    Election-year politics was a big influence on the Republican’s decision to force a vote that they were certain to lose. "The Republicans want to be able to go to the voters and accuse us of obstructionism, even though they know their proposal is grossly unfair to victims of asbestos exposure," said one Democratic congressional staffer who asked not to be named.

    After the Senate bill failed, some proponents of a legislative program to take asbestos liability damage suits out of the normal court system indicated that they would try again, with a proposal that might win more support. An informal group of businesses, insurers and labor organizations has begun to meet to attempt to reach agreement on a new measure to propose to Congress.

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