Labor, Asbestos Victims, Survivors Blast GOP’s Asbestos Fund Bill

WASHINGTON—The AFL-CIO, asbestos victims and their survivors are blasting the GOP-run House’s latest venture into the legal thicket of asbestos-caused cancer and its victims, saying the legislation harms the victims and helps the companies that injured them.  One survivor calls the measure “one-sided, unfair and unnecessary.”

But that didn’t stop the House from approving it on Nov. 13 by a virtual party-line 221-199 vote.  It’s the second pro-business asbestos bill that’s come up in three years.

The asbestos compensation issue has dragged through the courts for years, as workers and their survivors try to get compensation from firms that knowingly forced them to work with, and inhale, the cancer-causing substance.  Inhaling asbestos produces mesothelioma, a fatal cancer, asbestosis, lung cancer and other diseases.

The firms, led by still-bankrupt W.R. Grace, but also including shipyards, builders and others, have spent years lobbying against the victims, and sabotaging prospective settlements the federation worked on.  HR982, the victims and the AFL-CIO say, would shortchange victims and survivors and expose victims’ confidential medical data.

That would subject the victims and survivors of asbestos-caused mesothelioma to “blacklisting and discrimination,” says AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel.

“Decades of uncontrolled use of asbestos, even after its hazards were known, resulted in a legacy of disease and death,” he wrote lawmakers.  “Hundreds of thousands of workers and family members suffered or died of asbestos-related cancers and lung disease, and the toll continues.  Each year an estimated 10,000 people are expected to die in the U.S. from asbestos-related diseases.

Mesothelioma can hit the worker long after asbestos exposure.  Susan Vento, wrote lawmakers that her husband, the late Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., was not diag-nosed with the cancer until February 2000, decades after he worked as a construction laborer and breathed in the asbestos.  Treatment failed.  He died that October.

His widow has spent her time since campaigning for justice for asbestos victims.  HR982, she told the GOP-run House Judiciary Committee in March, “would contradict” his work and hers.  She called it “one-sided, unfair and unnecessary.”

“Asbestos victims have faced huge barriers and obstacles to receiving compensation for their diseases,” Samuel added.  “Major producers refused to accept responsibility and most declared bankruptcy in an attempt to limit their future liability.  In 1994 Congress passed special legislation that allowed the asbestos companies to set up bankruptcy trusts to compensate asbestos victims and reorganize.  But these trusts don’t have adequate funding to provide just compensation, and…the median payment across the trusts is only 25% of the claim’s value.

“We have spent years trying to seek solutions to make the asbestos compensa-tion system fairer and more effective.  HR982 does nothing to improve compensation for victims and would in fact make the situation even worse.  The bill is simply an effort by asbestos manufacturers who still are subject to asbestos lawsuits to avoid liability for diseases caused by exposure to their products,” Samuel stated.

The victims and their survivors aren’t happy with the GOP’s bill, either, and said so during that GOP-run hearing in March.

“Mesothelioma is the worst kind of cancer you can get,” Genevieve Bosilevac of Richmond, Va., wrote the lawmakers in one letter the Democrats read into the record then.  “What makes it so bad is that I shouldn’t have it.  I was diagnosed because someone else decided to use asbestos in their automotive products – gaskets, brakes and clutches.”  But she wasn’t an autoworker, just a delivery worker of those products her family’s auto painting business to mechanics and body shops.

“What we didn’t know is that these products contained asbestos and could cause my cancer.  Now these asbestos companies are asking you to pass a bill that will make it harder for people like me to get justice.  Please don’t let that happen.”

Judiciary Committee Democrats, who unanimously opposed HR982, were simi-larly harsh.  They called it “a thoroughly flawed bill that blatantly strengthens protections for the very entities that exposed millions of unsuspecting Americans to the toxic effects of asbestos,” and that was among their milder statements.  Party-line votes, in the committee and on the House floor, killed their moves to strengthen patient protections.

“The bill accomplishes this by giving asbestos defendants ‘new rights and advantages to be used against asbestos victims in state court’ and it would ‘add new burdens’ to asbestos bankruptcy trusts that would severely cripple ‘their ability to operate and pay claims.’  Although proponents assert it is intended to protect asbestos victims, not a single asbestos victim has expressed support for HR982,” they said.

All the objections didn’t deter the Republicans.  Their committee report requires the asbestos trusts to “provide information related to payment from, and demands for payment from such trust to any party in an action involving liability for asbestos exposure.”  Left unsaid in the GOP description: The information comes from the victims or their survivors and “any party” includes the asbestos manufacturers.