Asbestos liability bill gets approval from Senate committee

Friday, July 11, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Legislation creating an $108 billion asbestos liability trust fund in exchange for an end to litigation gained approval from a powerful Senate committee Thursday night after lawmakers agreed on payout limits to people made sick by the material.

The bill still faces problems when it makes it to the full Senate, with both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee saying their votes were not assured when it comes to a vote in the chamber.

"I'm not confident that this is the quality of bill that we need to pass," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who voted for the bill in committee, but would not commit to supporting the bill in the full Senate.

"I think we've compensated people without impairments and we may be compensating people whose diseases or illnesses are not caused by asbestos more than is justified," he said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, acknowledged the problems ahead. "We will work with all members to try to improve it between now and the floor," he said.

The committee voted 10-8 to pass the legislation, with all Judiciary Republicans voting for the bill except Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who passed on the vote, and all Judiciary Democrats voting against the legislation except Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who voted for the legislation.

Feinstein said the amendments she helped add to the legislation -- a ban on most uses of asbestos in America, a backup fund in case the main asbestos fund begins to run out of money and Thursday's payout limits -- nudged her to vote yes.

"I happen to believe they were substantial improvements on the bill and I believe that I can defend them," she said.

After weeks of negotiations, Republicans and Democrats agreed on a list of payments Thursday, the last major holdup on the legislation. A claimant with mesothelioma, the most lethal of the asbestos-caused cancers, would get $1 million.

The fund would recognize 10 levels of asbestos related diseases: five levels of nonmalignant disease and five levels of cancer, including colorectal cancer and lung cancer. Smokers, ex-smokers and nonsmokers who are sick from asbestos-related diseases would get different amounts of money.

"We're getting the money to the people who really need it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Democrats wanted more money for asbestos victims than Republicans were willing to give, but both sides agreed to the compromise to move the bill forward.

"I think it's the best we're going to do," Feinstein said. "Maybe that means we have a fair and balanced bill if both sides don't like it."

The legislation contains some compromises that Democrats wanted but pays individual claimants less than Democrats sought.

"I still feel that victims are giving up too much to guarantee finality to those who are responsible for the diseases they inherit," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Without Democratic support, the bill is unlikely to make it through the Senate, where Republicans hold only a two-vote margin.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral commonly used until the mid-1970s for insulation and fireproofing. When inhaled, its tiny fibers can -- over decades -- cause cancer and other ailments.

Lawmakers all agree that asbestos liability is driving companies out of business and leaving asbestos victims with little or no money for medical bills.

A trust fund would speed money to those people and give companies assurance that they will not be sued out of existence, supporters of the plan say.

Under the legislation, insurers would contribute $45 billion and companies that have been sued would pay $45 billion. The rest of the money would come from smaller companies, existing asbestos trusts and interest on the fund.

To ensure that all claimants get paid, the fund's manager can call for as much as $45 billion from the companies and insurers if the fund starts getting low and more asbestos victims are awaiting money.

The fund manager can also call for companies and insurers to kick in an additional $2 billion a year after the fund ends. In exchange, those companies keep their immunity to asbestos liability lawsuits. Companies that do not pay the additional $2 billion can be sued.

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