Lawmakers Content to Let Down Asbestos Victims
June 11, 2013
The last time Congress made significant progress on asbestos-related legislation was 2007. That’s the year when the Senate passed the Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007.
Unfortunately, the House of Representatives never passed its a version of the measure, and it was never enacted into law.
Six years later, members of the House seem to be in a hurry. They want to vote on asbestos legislation — now.
Pity that their eyes are on Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act. That’s not the kind of legislative action the mesothelioma community needs or deserves.
U.S. Falling Behind
For people in the United States who were exposed to asbestos, there’s little question federal lawmakers could make better use of their time than they are now. Instead of taking up the FACT Act, Congress could consider legislation that makes a difference for asbestos victims. Banning asbestos in the United States and developing a system for compensating people who developed life-changing diseases because of asbestos are two measures that immediately come to mind.
As it happens, these are also two areas where we as a country are falling behind other industrialized nations.
U.S. asbestos victims and their advocates urged Congress for decades to ban asbestos. Starting in the 1970s, new laws began scaling back asbestos use. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Asbestos Ban and Phaseout Rule. It banned most asbestos-containing products. It was overturned after a court challenge in 1991.
Since, Congress has had more than two decades to add laws to tighten the use — or ban the use — of asbestos. But although 54 countries did ban asbestos, the United States remains one of the few major industrialized countries to fail to enact a complete ban on the hazardous material.
As a country. we also lag when it comes to compensating asbestos victims. In 2006, Congress considered the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution (FAIR) Act of 2006. It would have established an office within the Department of Labor to handle asbestos injury claims. It also would have established procedures for compensating victims based on the severity of their injuries.
The bills never made it though Congress. Lawmakers introduced and reintroduced versions of the bill in Congress multiple times, but not in recent years.
Internationally, the Welsh government is considering legislation to help it recover the costs of asbestos-related diseases from businesses and insurers. Those costs are estimated at over £2million ($3.1 million) per year. The legislation would raise up to half of that amount which would be used to pay for medical treatment in cases where legal liability has been established. A vote on the bill was recently postponed until July.
Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers remain content to let asbestos victims turn to the courts and fight for compensation on their own — sort of.
Lawmakers aren’t looking for a legislative solution that could save asbestos victims the trouble of going to court. Ironically, lately they seem to be listening to rhetoric from asbestos defendants and others who demonize asbestos victims for exercising their rights to legal compensation for preventable injuries.
Where is the Congressional help for people who are actually suffering, people who develop mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer and asbestosis? Why must they suffer in silence and without any clout behind them?
Today, victims and their advocates must spend time and effort opposing legislation like the FACT Act that would set back victim’s rights. Ordinarily, they would spend that time on the things that matter, like banning asbestos. And it’s becoming more difficult for them to have their voices heard in opposition to questionable legislation like the FACT Act.
When the House Judiciary Committee considered the FACT Act last year, it included public testimony from an advocate for victims’ rights. The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law held another hearing on the bill earlier this year. But this year, the Subcommittee did not choose to include victims’ voices.
Members of the Asbestos Cancer Victims Rights Campaign were promised that the Subcommittee would postpone a vote on the bill so that victims could testify at an open hearing. But that never happened. Instead, they were invited to submit written comments and meet with lawmakers behind closed doors. In May, the full Judiciary Committee voted 17-14 to send the bill for a vote on the House floor.
Vento Decries Congressional Action on FACT Act
Susan Vento recently wrote this compelling account of the group’s experience and how the FACT Act’s proposed disclosures invade victims’ privacy. Her late husband, Congressman Bruce Vento of Minnesota, died from pleural mesothelioma in 2001. Roll Call, a leading news source for lawmakers and Hill staffers, published her commentary. Hopefully it will have some influence before the full House of Representatives considers the bill.
But it’s hard to say. According to a statement supporting the Ban Asbestos in America Act and signed by several labor, environmental and victims’ rights groups, “Americans are dying at the rate of one per hour from past use of asbestos and the continuing contamination it leaves behind.”
If recent legislative priorities are any clue, lawmakers don’t find human lives as compelling as false claims by asbestos defendants and tort reform advocates. Apparently, they think it’s more important to reserve hearings for accusations that asbestos victims are ripping off bankruptcy trusts. That’s an interesting priority since victims only receive a median payment of 25 cents on the dollar, or as little as 1.1 percent of their claims, from trusts.
Until lawmakers listen, at least victims can be heard somewhere: in court. Just this morning, Reuters reported that a New York appeals court has ruled in favor of disclosure.
An asbestos defendant must make the disclosure this time. Georgia-Pacific must allow a court-appointed special master to inspect documents related to a study the company commissioned on asbestos as a cause of cancer. The ruling is a victory for numerous plaintiffs who have filed asbestos claims against Georgia-Pacific.