Manufacturers and insurance companies would be shielded from multimillion-dollar lawsuits from people with asbestos-related diseases in exchange for funding a $140 billion trust fund under legislation that has cleared its first hurdle.
Supporters claim a fund like the one the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Thursday is the only way to stop large asbestos lawsuits that have bankrupted such companies as Owens Corning Fiberglas and W.R Grace, and left sick people with no way to pay their medical bills.
The trust fund would compensate people sickened by exposure to asbestos, a fibrous mineral commonly used in construction until the mid-1970s. Asbestos has tiny fibers that can cause cancer and other ailments when inhaled. Millions of people have been exposed, and the diseases often take decades to develop.
Bill supporters say a trust fund would speed money to those suffering from asbestos-related illnesses and it would protect companies from the prospect of being sued out of existence.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a former committee chairman, advanced a bill in 2003 only to see it die in the full Senate. "We think it has a real shot, but there's still going to have to be a lot of work in it," said the Utah Republican.
Several committee Republicans who helped pass the measure by a 13-5 vote, nevertheless plan to oppose it on the Senate floor.
"As currently written, I could not support the bill on the floor," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Added Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., "It does need substantial work."
The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, is hopeful.
"We have always realized that passing a bill of this scope and complexity is the legislative equivalent of steering a ship through a minefield during a hurricane," Leahy said. "This solid and bipartisan committee endorsement will help generate the momentum that will be needed to navigate through the difficult steps that still lie ahead," he said.
But some Democrats, including Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Joseph Biden of Delaware, are preparing to fight the bill. Those two voted against the legislation in committee along with Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois.
"The mere fact that you spent a large amount of time on it doesn't justify pre-empting people's rights in court," Feingold said.
Kennedy says the bill is "both unfair and unworkable," with ten major flaws. He says they include inadequate funding of the trust fund to be used to pay claims; thousands of lung cancer and silica disease victims, ineligible to receive payments from the fund, nevertheless losing legal rights they now have; and a tougher standard of proof for linking disease to asbestos exposure, which Kennedy calls unfair.
The Rand Institute for Civil Justice said in a 2003 study that more than 60 companies have sought bankruptcy protection because of more than 600,000 asbestos claims now in courts. That number is expected to grow in the future.
A legislative compromise has proved elusive. Pulling the bill in different directions are manufacturers, insurers, labor groups, trial lawyers and groups representing people with asbestos-related illnesses.
"Everybody wants a little more, but the final vote will turn on whether the bill is better than the current system," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Because diseases caused by asbestos exposure can take many years to develop, workers who have been exposed to the particles, under current law, can sue for compensation for potential future injuries.
The Senate bill would eliminate the step of suing but damages would be paid only if victims could prove that they already have health problems.