Summary of Hearings on Asbestos Legislation
On June 4, 2003, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to examine S. 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 and scope.
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.
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Last updated on June 24, 2003