Heartland Calls for Reform Legislation on Asbestos Litigation

Published March 6, 2003

According to written testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate, Congress must pass legislation to alleviate the growing crisis in asbestos litigation. The testimony was sent to the Judiciary Committee by The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank based in Chicago, Illinois, as the committee begins hearings on the issue.

The testimony by Joseph L. Bast, President of The Heartland Institute, reviewed the history of asbestos as a health risk and the rise in litigation by persons suffering from diseases related to the manufacture and installation of the material. It pointed out that litigation has progressed from workers suing companies, such as Johns-Manville, that manufactured asbestos, to lawsuits by sick workers exposed to asbestos-containing products in their workplace, to litigants who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace but have yet to develop any symptoms of asbestos-related diseases. It adds that 90 percent of new asbestos cases are brought by individuals with no physical impairment.

Mr. Bast went on to point out that each new wave of litigation brings a new and larger circle of companies into the tort trap, including smaller and smaller businesses such as contractors, distributors, and the owners of premises where asbestos was found. Companies that acquired companies that manufactured or used products containing asbestos a half-century ago have also found themselves exposed to legal liabilities reaching millions and even billions of dollars.

By the end of the 1990s, some 40,000 new lawsuits were being filed each year, threatening the bankruptcy of countless companies both large and small. Sixty-five percent of the funds generated by asbestos litigation, according to a RAND Corporation study, doesn’t reach the people who are supposed to benefit, but finances instead a complex and adversarial system that takes years to decide who is entitled to benefits and how much.

In the meantime, more victims of exposure to asbestos die before they or their families receive even a single cent from the companies responsible for their plight while thousands more suits are filed in state and federal courts by people at very low risk of ever having an asbestos-related health problem. Court dockets are jammed with what ought to be low-priority cases, and claimants who make it to trial spin the wheel of fortune and may, or may not, win awards of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars.

Mr. Bast noted a variety of solutions have been discussed and seem workable, but opposition from the plaintiff’s bar to administrative remedies, trust funds, and anything resembling “tort reform” has narrowed the list of politically feasible reforms. He says one that shows promise is Sen. Don Nickles’ Asbestos Claims Criteria and Compensation Act, which Nickles says “would require a reasonable set of medical criteria to be used to ensure that those who suffer from asbestos-related disease or impairment can find legal remedy without unnecessary delay. It would put those truly sick individuals at the front of the compensation line, while preserving the legal rights of individuals who may become sick in the future.”

Mr. Bast calls for Congress to move on reform legislation now, or risk facing the angry victims of asbestos and the asbestos litigation crisis in the future.

As President of The Heartland Institute, Mr. Bast conducted research on asbestos safety and litigation in the mid-1990s for a book he coauthored titled Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism. Since then he has monitored the asbestos controversy by overseeing several publications of The Heartland Institute devoted to scientific controversies and lawsuit abuse.

For further information, contact Heartland Public Affairs Director Greg Lackner at 312/377-4000, 773/489-6447, email [email protected]