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Congress debates how to compensate asbestos victims

July 17, 2003
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A divided U.S. Senate committee approved legislation for creating a $108 billion trust fund to compensate asbestos exposure victims, as Democrats argued the measure failed to adequately pay individual claimants for their diseases, according to Bloomberg News.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8, largely along party lines, to send the measure to the full Senate where Democrats have the votes to block the legislation. The bill would end lawsuits that have bankrupted more than 60 U.S. companies.

The proposed legislation aims to create a special federal asbestos court, which would have jurisdiction over all asbestos liability claims, ending the current system, under which people who have been sickened by asbestos may file product liability lawsuits against asbestos manufacturing companies, or companies that used asbestos-containing products, in state or federal court, according to a report by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.

The draft legislation includes detailed medical criteria for each of ten degrees of asbestos-caused disease, assigning to each a set amount of compensation. The funds for the compensation would come from a trust fund to be set up with payments from the asbestos manufacturing companies and from insurance companies that wrote liability insurance for them.

According to NYCOSH, among the most controversial aspects of the legislation are the medical criteria that will be used to determine whether a person is eligible for compensation and how much they will receive, if eligible.

When the legislation was first proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the medical criteria in it were criticized by organized labor and by many occupational health physicians and trial lawyers. According to critics, as initially proposed, the bill’s medical criteria would have excluded as many as three-quarters of the people who are now eligible to be compensated in the tort system. After negotiations, the bill’s sponsors agreed to a completely re-written section on medical criteria.

A major role in the negotiations over the bill is being played by the AFL-CIO, in part because many Senate Democrats have indicated they will not support an asbestos compensation bill that is opposed by the union federation, according to NYCOSH.

Another aspect of the draft legislation that has come in for criticism are the amounts of compensation assigned to each level of asbestos disease, according to NYCOSH. For example, the highest level of compensation is $750,000 for a person diagnosed with mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the lining of the lung that is invariably fatal. That amount, attorney Jon Gelman told NYCOSH, is “one-third of their average compensation” received through the tort system.

The Hatch bill focuses almost exclusively on compensating occupational exposure to asbestos, according to NYCOSH. Only two kinds of non-occupational exposure will be compensated if the legislation passes in its present form. One exception in the draft bill is to compensate victims of asbestos disease living in Libby, Montana, a town that was contaminated with asbestos by dust and debris from a nearby mine. The other exception would be to compensate family members of asbestos workers who were exposed to asbestos dust carried home on work clothes.

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