The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, January 08, 2005  

The Inconvenience of Developing Cancer

What’s “junk,” asbestos and the tens of thousands of deaths it has caused, or the lawsuits that seek to hold manufacturers to account for the damage the caused?

It will come as no surprise that the Bush administration has taken the side of asbestos makers. In “Bush Urges Settlement of Asbestos Claims,” by Peter Baker, the Washington Post, January 8, we read:

President Bush urged Congress on Friday to find a way to settle tens of billions of dollars in claims by victims of asbestos in hopes of stanching a flood of litigation that he blamed for driving scores of companies out of business.

“This is a national problem . . . that requires a national solution,” the president said. . . . “These asbestos suits have bankrupted a lot of companies, and that affects the workers here in Michigan and around the country.”

The appeal was the president’s third event in as many days promoting restrictions on what he calls “junk lawsuits,” one of his top legislative priorities for the beginning of his second term. Along with tackling the asbestos litigation, Bush wants Congress to impose caps on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases and limit the ability to bring class-action lawsuits.

The enemy here, in the world of President Corporatist State, is not asbestos or asbestos manufacturers, but the dreaded “trial lawyers.” And the victims aren’t asbestos-related cancer patients and their survivors, but those who made and distributed the deadly fiber.

According to the Post’s Baker, “Bush did not endorse a particular plan but outlined principles that seemed to embrace a congressional proposal to create an asbestos trust fund to pay off claims and eliminate lawsuits. The idea has proved less ideologically polarizing than the rest of Bush’s tort package, but negotiations broke down last year largely over how much money businesses and insurers would be required to fork over.”

Baker also reports that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the father of a successful Philadelphia trial lawyer, Shanin Specter, who some say has political aspirations of his own, “has a new version without a bottom-line figure that would reach out to opponents by allowing victims to go back to court if their claims are not paid or are not paid expeditiously by the trust fund.”

By way of background, Baker offers these observations:

About 600,000 asbestos claims are pending, according to the Rand Institute for Civil Justice and Tillinghast-Towers Perrin, a consulting firm. Rand found that businesses have paid $70 billion for asbestos claims over the past 30 years, while 70 corporations have filed for bankruptcy protection because of the liability. Among them were subsidiaries of Vice President [Dick] Cheney’s former firm, Halliburton Co. The subsidiaries emerged from bankruptcy this week.

Note the president’s tack in addressing this difficult issue:

The four people Bush invited to join him on Friday’s panel highlighted the costs of such litigation. Two were presidents of businesses that have been hit with large claims. One said his firm has spent $200 million in asbestos litigation expenses since 2000, compared with $2 million for the 15 prior years. The panelists agreed that asbestos is a “national tragedy,” as Lester Brickman, a specialist at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York, put it. “But lawyers have taken this tragedy and turned it into an enormous money-making machine in which . . . baseless claims predominate.”

Any word from someone suffering from asbestos-induced cancer? Apparently not.

The Los Angeles Times reports (“Bush Backs Asbestos Tort Fund,” by Edwin Chen):

Consumer groups chided Bush for conducting what they regarded a “one-sided” conversation, in the words of Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, made up of asbestos victims and their families, demanded to be heard in the debate.

“The asbestos industry must be held accountable for its actions. . . . It is unacceptable for meetings to be held with industry, the companies and all of the corporate interests who would benefit from the asbestos industry bailout bill, and not those who suffer as a result of asbestos exposure,” the group said in a statement.

Plainly, victims of the deadly poisoning of asbestos, a compound recognized by scientists for decades as a powerful carcinogen, are just too inconvenient when corporate interests are involved.

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