Navigation Bar

Home -> Heath & Safety Index -> Article


Asbestos Compensation?
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 passes.

  • 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 Compensation!)


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 year.

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.

Home -> Heath & Safety Index -> Article

Home • About UE • Organize! • Independent Unions • Search • Site Guide • What's New • Contact UE
UE News • Political Action • Info for Workers • Resources • Education • Health & Safety • International • Links