Congress takes up asbestos legislation

Tangle of lawsuits, procedures was focus of high court appeal

June 28, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- After the Supreme Court threw up its hands in exasperation last week, Congress is preparing to begin debate Thursday on a new measure that would drastically overhaul the way the legal system resolves lawsuits brought by people harmed by asbestos.

On the last day of its term, as it rejected a settlement of asbestos litigation approved by two lower courts, the court implored Congress to devise a legislative solution to "the elephantine mass of asbestos cases" that the justices said were clogging federal and state dockets, enriching lawyers in protracted court proceedings that ultimately leave many victims of asbestos poisoning with little or nothing.

Taking up the court's request, the House Judiciary Committee will begin hearings this week in an attempt to build support for legislation that would dramatically alter the current legal regime for handling asbestos cases.

The fight over the legislation features some of Washington's most powerful interests, pitting larger manufacturers of asbestos and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce against the trial lawyers and unions.

Since more asbestos claims are filed in federal and state courts than any other kind of civil case, the debate in Congress is part of a larger fight over the United States' system for resolving tort cases. But asbestos cases have proved to be a particular challenge for judges and the courts because of the nature of the ailments that the substance causes.

Exposure to asbestos may not manifest injuries until decades later, and illnesses it may cause range from the relatively minor to the deadly. The AFL-CIO, which opposes the legislation, estimates that as many as 1 million of its current and retired members were exposed to asbestos; many of them will develop debilitating or deadly ailments.

A judicial study cited by the Supreme Court predicted that there may be as many as 265,000 asbestos-related deaths by the year 2015.

The delay in appearance of symptoms has made it difficult for some asbestos makers to calculate their potential liabilities and estimate how much they will need to pay over the next several decades. It has also raised concerns that the current victims, in winning large verdicts that may include punitive damages, will deplete the available money long before all of the victims of asbestos make it to the courthouse.

The measures under consideration by Congress eliminate punitive damages in asbestos cases, prohibit victims from making use of the often more generous state court systems, and cap lawyers' fees at a maximum of 25 percent of settlements.

The legislation would create an administrative agency financed by the industry and its insurers to process the hundreds of thousands of pending claims filed by workers who have been exposed to asbestos since the 1940s. Claimants could go to court to seek more money, but only after exhausting a hearing and mediation process run by the new agency.

The legislation also eliminates any barriers to bringing lawsuits posed by the statute of limitations. Its supporters say it will result in far more claims being resolved far faster and at lower cost.

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