Summary of Hearings on Asbestos Legislation
- June 4, 2003: Senate Judiciary Committee
hearing on "Solving the Asbestos Litigation Crisis"
"Solving the Asbestos Litigation Crisis"
June 4, 2003
Chuck Hagel, United States Senator (R-NE)
Patty Murray, United States Senator (D-WA)
Max Baucus, United States Senator (D-MT)
Laurence H. Tribe, Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School
Dr. James D. Crapo, National Jewish Medical Research Center
Dr. Laura Stewart Welch, Medical Director for Center to Protect Workers
Dr. John E. Parker, Department of Medicine, University of West Virginia
Jennifer L. Biggs, Tillinghast-Towers Perrin
Dr. Mark A. Peterson, Legal Analysis Systems
Dr. Fred Dunbar, Senior Vice President of National Economic Research
Eric D. Green, Professor at Boston University School of Law
Dr. Robert Hartwig, Chief Economist for Insurance Information Institute
On June 4, 2003, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to
1125, the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2003.
S. 1125 was introduced by the committee's chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch
(R-UT). The first panel consisted of two senators (with experience
in asbestos injury litigation) who do not serve on the committee.
The other panelists included law professors, doctors, and economists.
This hearing was the third and final hearing on this bill, which is
due for mark up on June 12th. The majority of the witnesses agreed
that a method of settling asbestos injury claims outside of the judiciary
system is needed, but many raised concerns as to its implementation
As cited in the bill, the purpose of S.
1125 is to "create a privately funded, publicly administered
fund to provide the necessary resources for an asbestos injury claims
resolution program." The bill would establish a United States
Court of Asbestos Claims, separate from the judicial system, which
would deal exclusively with asbestos litigation under a no-fault system.
Claimants would be awarded financial compensation in correlation with
their level of exposure and any resulting impairment to themselves
or deceased relatives. This court would be exclusively for claims
regarding work place exposure, but people exposed to asbestos outside
of the work place would still be able to bring claims through the
tort system. Also excluded from this process would be claims under
worker compensation and veterans' rights jurisdiction. A highly contentious
provision of the bill would subtract money already received by the
claimant through collateral sources from the amount granted by the
court. These collateral sources could include health insurance, disability
insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, or death benefits programs.
Democrats' central criticisms with S. 1125 were introduced during
the opening statement of Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT). These
concerns included the issue of what would be done if the trust fund
runs out before its 25-year designation, whether or not the federal
government would back up the remaining claims, the coverage of only
work-related exposure, the cut-off date of claimant eligibility, and
the usage of collateral sources to counter-act compensation costs.
As the first witness, Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) supported S. 1125
as a bill that would address major problems in the current process
by forming a single trust fund. Dealing with claims through a single
trust, rather than the six that currently exist, would lower administration
costs, leaving more money available for victims of asbestos exposure.
Hagel stressed that though imperfect, the process proposed in S. 1125
would be more efficient and effective than the current system.
The committee then questioned Laurence Tribe on the constitutionality
of the bill, to which he responded that the bill is constitutional
in all parts and makes sense as a policy measure. When asked as to
whether the proposed court would be constitutional in its goal of
approximate justice as an administrative (not judicial body), Tribe
responded in the affirmative: "The Constitution does not promise
perfection and can't deliver it."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) spoke to the committee regarding her concern
that the legislation protects the interests of insurance companies
into the future but does not protect the future of victims after the
bill's 25-year limit. She called for a ban on asbestos use in products
such as brake pads, gaskets, and ceilings. Such a ban was carried
out in 1989 but overturned in 1991. Senator Murray's bill to ban asbestos
in America (S.
1115) was introduced to the Senate on May 22, 2003.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) testified that S. 1125 has serious implications
for his home state's town of Libby, Montana, in its battle with W.
R. Grace. Baucus voiced concerns that the bill only deals with claims
based on workplace exposure, eliminating the possibility of compensation
for many of Libby's claimants. The bill's 1982 cutoff date, which
Baucus called "completely arbitrary," would also eliminate
a large percentage of Libby residents from compensation consideration.
Dr. Mark Peterson concurred with Baucus's testimony, arguing that
"the risk of under-funding and certainty of delay seem to make
the current proposal unworkable."
Dr. James Crapo and Dr. John Parker both supported the bill, agreeing
that the medical requirements are a "fair compromise" in
the context of trying to settle asbestos cases outside of the judicial
system. Dr. Laura Welch disagreed, arguing that "the bill will
exclude the vast majority of workers with asbestos related diseases
from receiving any compensation, and provide very low levels of compensation
for workers who have significant impairment and fatal diseases."
Hearing testimonies and committee members' opening statements are
available at http://judiciary.senate.gov/hearing.cfm?id=777.
Sources: Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Emily R. Scott, 2003 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on June 24, 2003