- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

In the wake of the American Bar Association's historic decision to break with trial-lawyer advocacy groups and support commonsense limits on asbestos-related lawsuits, the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon will hold a hearing on the growing problem of asbestos litigation and bankruptcies. Asbestos, a mineral once widely used in fireproofing and insulation, can cause severe and even fatal health damage to individuals receiving prolonged exposure. The most serious problem today, however, is a proliferation of lawsuits coming from people who received little or no actual harm from asbestos.
According to a Rand Corp. study released in January, between 65 percent and 90 percent of asbestos plaintiffs in the courts today have no physical impairment. The ABA made its move last month after hearing angry lawyers complain that lawsuits from non-victims were inhibiting the ability of persons injured by asbestos to receive compensation.
Sen. Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, has introduced legislation (S. 413) that he says would move actual asbestos victims to the front of the line when it comes to compensation by establishing medical criteria based on American Medical Association (AMA) standards for determining asbestos-related illnesses. Like the ABA proposal, Mr. Nickles' proposal, the Asbestos Claims Criteria and Compensation Act, would also protect the rights of individuals who are concerned that they may some day develop an asbestos-related illness "by keeping the statute of limitations clock from ticking until the illness is discovered."
This afternoon's Judiciary Committee witness list represents something of a political and philosophical cross-section on asbestos and tort reform in general, ranging from ABA President-elect Dennis Archer to a representative of the AFLCIO. The latter can be expected to make the case for some sort of trust fund that would handle asbestos-related claims something that is likely to deteriorate into an expensive boondoggle for persons who aren't really sick (and their lawyers).
But this afternoon's most powerful witness for change could prove to be Steven Kazan. A partner in an Oakland law firm, he has spent the last 15 to 20 years representing plaintiffs suffering from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer. In testimony before the Judiciary Committee in September, Mr. Kazan delivered an impassioned plea for reform. "Other plaintiffs' attorneys are filing tens of thousands of claims every year for people who have absolutely nothing wrong with them. This bankrupts defendants who are not there when it comes time to seek compensation for cancer victims and their families," he said. "Moreover, non-malignant claims in particular accrue value they wouldn't otherwise have because they can find the courthouses with the most favorable procedural practices and the most generous juries."
When the Judiciary meets this afternoon, it should listen carefully to Mr. Kazan's powerful plea for reform.

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