UE NEWS HEALTH AND SAFETY
A Killer Idea ...
UE News, March 2000
This past month, while the attention of many of us was focused
on hearings on the proposed OSHA Ergonomics standard, quietly as a snake
moving through the tall grass, a venomous "asbestos compensation"
bill was making its way through U.S. Congressional hearings.
On March 15, hearings were held before the House Judiciary
Committee on a bill entitled the "Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act
of 1999" (H.R. 1283). And when you hear words like "fairness"
or "reform" (as in "Social Security reform") attached to
bills before this or recent sessions of Congress, hold onto your wallets and
be prepared to fight like hell for your rights.
This is what the bill says in its introduction (Sec. 2):
"Congress finds that:
"(1) Asbestos personal injury legislation is unfair and
inefficient, and imposes a crushing burden on litigants and taxpayers alike;
"(2) Asbestos litigation has already led to the
bankruptcy of more than 15 companies, representing the great majority of the
former asbestos industry."
Not a word is mentioned in this entire section about the
suffering and deaths of tens of thousands of asbestos workers. The only
concern expressed is that the legal process of compensation for these killings
and disability is costly. Of course, this bill seeks to reduce these costs by
limiting the rights of workers and their families to sue companies for
egregious misconduct, and by eliminating punitive damages entirely.
This is what the bill does:
It establishes an Asbestos Resolution Corporation
which has "exclusive authority" over all asbestos
lawsuits now in the courts and all those to come in the future.
The Corporation, in turn, appoints a Medical Advisory
Board, which alone determines whether a person’s illnesses qualify as
asbestos-related, based on arbitrary, rigid medical rules written into
law. For example, to be determined as medically eligible for compensation,
persons with lung cancer must show that they have been exposed to asbestos
dust for at least 12 years. But years of exposure since 1979 are
not counted, unless the worker can show that his employer
has violated the law by exposing him or her above legally allowed limits.
This puts the burden of proof on the worker; it does not give him or her
the benefit of the doubt, as state workers’ compensation laws do. The
medical criteria are filled with convoluted rules like this.
Workers are required to enter into mediation or
arbitration before they are allowed to file a lawsuit against a company
which exposed them to asbestos dust.
Punitive damages against companies are prohibited
in all civil suits arising from asbestos exposure. It doesn’t matter,
then, if the companies knowingly withheld information from workers which
could have saved their lives, as has been proven in a number of past
lawsuits. When it comes to punitive damages — legal financial
punishment, in other words — the companies are home-free if this bill
Of course, the bill reduces legal fees which lawyers can
charge to 25 percent of awards, reducing the incentives for lawyers to
represent asbestos victims. However, if the lawyers settle out of court,
they are entitled to any percentage or amount they can get. This is an
encouragement to company lawyers effectively to bribe workers’ lawyers
with promises of high fees if they can convince their worker/clients to
settle cheap. (And they call this "Fairness" in Asbestos
CAN IT HAPPEN HERE?
Almost unnoticed, this bill (S. 758) actually was passed by
the Senate last year, with sponsorship not only by known enemies of labor like
Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) and John Ashcroft (R., Mo.), but also by
such so-called friends of labor as Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), Robert
Torricelli (D., N.J.) and Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.). The chief
corporate sponsor of the bill, according to a recent article in the New
York Times, is Samuel J. Heyman, head of the GAF Corp.,
headquartered in Wayne, N.J. He is a major and persistent contributor to the
Democratic Party and its candidates. This, many conclude, is why so many
"pro-labor" Democrats sponsored the bill in the U.S. Senate.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This bill, as Dave points out in his April,
2000 Health and Safety column, thankfully did not pass the Senate last
The chief sponsor of the House version is Rep. Henry Hyde,
chair of the Judiciary Committee; he is joined by 77 of his most anti-labor
colleagues, such as (Gingrich buddy) Richard Armey and Cass
Ballenger, author of the infamous anti-OSHA Ballenger bill.
The asbestos bill was not passed by the House last year,
although hearings were held. This bill can and must be stopped in the House
this year. The AFL-CIO says H.R. 1283 "would slam the courthouse door
shut on hundreds of thousands of poisoned workers to the benefit of the
companies that poisoned them."
Contact your U.S. representative and tell her or him: This
bill should not pass! It has nothing to do with fairness, and everything to
do with rewarding corporate crime.
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