President Bush discussed ways to curb asbestos lawsuits Friday during a trip to Michigan, where auto companies have been hammered by lawsuits from people who say that asbestos made them ill.
"We have too many junk lawsuits in our system. Pure and simple," said Bush, who made his first trip to the state since winning re-election in November.
"This is a national problem, as the Supreme Court said, that requires a national solution."
Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG have faced lawsuits from people who said their car brakes made them ill. In 2003, the Big Three unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to limit their exposure to such lawsuits.
Mr. Bush, who spoke at Macomb Community College in Clinton Township north of Detroit, was joined by Bruce McPhee, president of East Lansing-based Saylor-Beall Manufacturing Co. McPhee said his company has faced 53 lawsuits since 2001. The company makes air compressors and has never manufactured anything containing asbestos but was confused with a New Hampshire company that made equipment for mines in the 1940s, McPhee said.
"This is a classic small business in America with 100 employees. (It) would like to be expanding ... and yet money is going out the door to pay for 53 junk lawsuits," Mr. Bush said.
Attorney Mary Lou Keener, a Flint native and veterans' rights advocate, sued in 2002 after her father, a Navy veteran, died of an asbestos-related illness. She said the case isn't proceeding because the courts are clogged with asbestos cases.
"The truly sick, the dying and in some cases the dead are not being compensated in a fair or a timely fashion," Keener said.
The Michigan Trial Lawyers Association said that if Mr. Bush wants to curb asbestos illnesses, he should push for a ban on asbestos. The association said many companies knew about problems with asbestos for decades and now want a taxpayer bailout.
"Those responsible for profiting off of the tens of thousands of asbestos deaths and injuries ought to be held accountable," association president Michael Pitt said.
The President didn't advocate a specific solution but said Congress needs to consider the issue.
Federal-Mogul, a Southfield-based auto supplier, filed for bankruptcy in 2001 because it was facing more than 365,000 lawsuits claiming hundreds of millions in damages because of asbestos. The company was drawn into the issue in 1998, when it bought several companies with asbestos claims against them.
Federal-Mogul spokesman Elliott Portnoy said the company wants Mr. Bush to support a law that would require people to be ill from exposure to asbestos before they could sue. Right now, people are suing even though they aren't sick because they fear getting sick in the future, he said.
Dr. Michael Harbut, chief of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at Detroit's Karmanos Cancer Institute, is wary of congressional intervention, saying Congress has failed to consider the opinions of doctors and asbestos patients in the past.
Harbut said a bill that failed to pass in the last session of Congress would have established a trust fund to pay for asbestos injuries. But he faulted the bill because it failed to include money for research, didn't consider that the family members of exposed workers also can suffer and had the wrong criteria for diagnosing asbestos-related diseases.
The bill also didn't include any compensation for victims of vermiculite, a mineral used in insulation that contains a particularly deadly form of asbestos, Harbut said. Harbut estimated that 700,000 houses in Michigan still contain vermiculite.
"I couldn't agree more that the system needs to be reformed, but they're basically reforming it in a way to keep the lawyers happy," he said.
Mr. Bush is expected to suggest ways to speed up the compensation process, deputy press secretary Trent Duffy said. In addition, Mr. Bush is going to urge Congress to find ways to protect third parties — companies that have nothing to do with causing asbestos illnesses — from lawsuits, he said. The president is not expected to express support for any specific bill in Congress.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said this week that Republicans will try for quick action on a measure that would end asbestos lawsuits in exchange for a trust fund to compensate victims. A hearing on Specter's legislation is scheduled for Tuesday.
Republicans say Democrats wouldn't let previous bills pass because trial lawyers don't want to lose the money they make from asbestos lawsuits. Democrats argue that the GOP bills didn't have enough money for victims and that Republicans are only trying to help their friends in the business and insurance communities by immunizing them from lawsuits.
At the White House on Thursday, Mr. Bush met with lawmakers to push for federal limits on class-action lawsuits, an important issue for many conservatives who say frivolous litigation hurts businesses. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has said that class-action legislation will be the first bill introduced in the Senate this session.
In Illinois on Wednesday, Mr. Bush renewed his effort to impose nationwide ceilings on medical malpractice awards for pain and suffering. On this issue, he faces strong opposition from Democrats in Congress, who say patients deserve the right to seek awards, without arbitrary ceilings, for medical mistakes.