- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The first major test for tort reform in the new Congress began yesterday with Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into the burgeoning field of lawsuits filed over asbestos-related illnesses.

Yesterday’s hearing — convened by committee Chairman Arlen Specter — came just days after President Bush called on Congress to fix what he called a crisis of “junk lawsuits.”

“We do face a crisis,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “Companies are going bankrupt, American workers are losing jobs, a handful of personal injury lawyers are running away with billions of dollars — all while the truly sick are not getting compensated fairly and efficiently — often times getting pennies on the dollar for their injury.”

For years, senators on both sides of the aisle have worked to create a multibillion-dollar compensation fund for victims of asbestos exposure in exchange for diverting the cases from the overburdened court system. The fund would be supported by the defendant companies being sued over asbestos exposure.

Past agreements have fallen apart because of disputes over how much the companies should have to pay into the system. Past legislative proposals also have been stalled by complaints from trial lawyers who make millions on the lawsuits.

“The heart of the problem is that too many claims are filed on behalf of people who are not sick and may never become sick,” former Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, said. “These questionable claims force real victims to wait longer and longer for what is often reduced compensation.”

“We strongly support the trust fund approach,” said Mr. Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers. “Removing claims from the tort system is the only way to ensure that victims receive fair and prompt compensation, stop the bankruptcies and eliminate the fraud and uncertainty for both victims and defendant companies.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he supports the idea of an indemnity fund.

“We have yet to reach consensus on the other two pillars of a successful trust fund — fair award values for asbestos victims, and adequate funding to pay for the victims’ claims,” he said. “If the award values are too low or subject to liens that reduce or exhaust any recovery for victims, the bill will be inherently unfair and unworthy of our support.”

Also appearing before the committee was Billie Speicher, who was diagnosed last May with mesothelioma, contracted, he said, after being exposed to asbestos as an aircraft mechanic in the Marine Corps and as a pipe-fitter from 1965 to 1999.

“Although none of us knew it then, no one told my buddies and me that asbestos could kill you,” he said, adding that he’s been told by doctors that he only has a matter of months to live.

“I need help with my medical bills,” Mr. Speicher said. “I don’t want my family stuck with a pile of debts after I’m gone. I’m telling you right now that’s causing me as much pain as the cancer that’s eating away at my body.”

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