LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 8 no 2, 2001, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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US Congress Answers Supreme Call On Asbestos Cases

By Stephen Labaton in Washington

1999 by the New York Times Co. Article reprinted by permission.
Also printed in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June 1999.

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

On the last day of its term, as it rejected a settlement of asbestos litigation, the court implored Congress to devise a legislation solution to "the elephantine mass of asbestos cases" that the justice said were clogging Federal and State lists, 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 bearings this week in an attempt to build support for legislation that would dramatically alter the regime for handling asbestos cases.

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 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. Labour unions estimated that as many as a million of their 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 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 court.

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 lawyer’s fees at a maximum of 25 per cent 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.

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