Asbestos, "The Miracle Mineral", was always advertised as indestructible. The intractable legacy that it has left upon the judicial system is like the mineral's everlasting physical properties and the incurable diseases that it causes. Late September 2002, only weeks before the close of the 107th Congress, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT.), then Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held congressional hearings concerning the status of asbestos litigation in the United States. Senator Leahy recognized the statement made by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in which she mirrored the sentiment among many who seek a remedy. The solution is that Congress provide a secure, fair and efficient means of compensating the victims of asbestos exposure.
Unfortunately, in the past, industry and their lobbyist attempted to manipulate Congress to immunize itself from liability. Senator Leahy said, "The past failed efforts of legislative solutions were thinly veiled attempts by some to avoid accountability for their asbestos responsibilities through what they euphemistically call national tort 'reform'."
The diseases caused by asbestos exposure have a long latency period and the symptoms may not occur until decades after the exposures. Even though the asbestos companies knew their products were deadly and did little or nothing to prevent exposure and illness, hundred of thousands of Americans have developed asbestos-related disease and died.
In the 106th Congress representative Henry Hyde (R-IL.) and then Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO.) introduced bills that would have drastically limited the rights of asbestos victims to bring civil claims against industry and would have established an administrative compensation system based upon a very restrictive medical eligibility standard. If that legislation had been successful, up to 50% of asbestos victims that were eligible for compensation under the present law, would have been denied compensation for their injuries.
Senator Leahy stated at the hearing, "…The lesson to learn from the past is that any compensation plan must be fair to asbestos victims and their families." In order to formulate a law that will meet those goals Senator Leahy stated that "…it will require a commitment by law makers and interested parties to conduct a full and open debate."
Many of the asbestos suppliers and manufacturers have shielded themselves under bankruptcy proceedings because of their asbestos-related liability. Senator Leahy noted at the September 2002 hearing that the corporate executives ignored the dangers of asbestos and continued to profit from its sale.
We, along with many other law firms and associations throughout the country, will continue to monitor the situation and demand that a fair and adequate compensation system be established, especially for those companies that have sought shelter in bankruptcy filings. We will continue to assist in the investigation of resources available to individual asbestos companies and demand that they provide a "complete financial disclosure" and not cook the books.