Asbestos trust fund hopes rise post-election

Steve Stanek Nov. 10, 2004, 10:07am

Congressman John Shimkus

Congressman Jerry Costello

Business groups are expressing cautious optimism about the chance to eliminate asbestos lawsuits, which have been a huge source of revenue for some Madison County trial lawyers and others around the country.

The optimism stems from the reelection of President George W. Bush and Republican gains in the House and Senate as a result of the Nov. 2 general election.

However, local congressmen say it's too early to tell whether legislation to create a $145 billion trust fund to cover asbestos liability claims will move in the months ahead.

"The election offers an improved opportunity," said Jan Amundson, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Association of Manufacturers, which has been a leader in asbestos litigation reform efforts. "We're not saying there is a certainty, by any means, but it does change some of the dynamics."

"We're going to have to see when we get reorganized (in Congress) what the priorities are and go from there," said David Gillies, chief of staff for Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Belleville). "The answer now is that it's too early to tell" if Congress will take up the asbestos trust fund legislation.

A spokesman for Congress John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) said he expects nothing to happen on the legislation until next year.

But the chances for movement on asbestos liability reform appear stronger than at any time since legislation began being worked on two years ago.

"Election 2004 was a tremendous win for civil justice reform," said American Tort Reform Association President Sherman Joyce. "We congratulate President Bush and all the other pro-civil justice reform candidates for their victories and look forward to working with them to restore fairness and predictability to our civil justice system."

President Bush, who has expressed his desire for reform of the civil justice system, became the first presidential candidate since 1988 to win more than half the popular vote. Republicans also gained three seats in the House and four seats in the Senate, strengthening pro-business and pro-tort reform forces in both chambers. One of the newcomers to the Senate will be John Thune, who defeated Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-N.D.), a strong ally of trial lawyers who has often opposed reform efforts.

Amundson said a lot of work was done in 2003 and earlier this year to draft a trust fund bill, with many Democrats and Republicans agreeing on key issues. Businesses and insurers would put up the money for the trust fund. In exchange, asbestos lawsuits could not be filed. Instead, claimants would be paid from the trust fund.

"Since the structure of an agreement was in place, we think that's the place to start working as opposed to looking for a new solution," Amundson said. "We have had people talking continuously, all through the election, about this. There is an interest and a willingness on the Republican side to continue doing this, and there have been Democrats willing to engage in conversation on it."

Last April the Senate failed to muster enough support to bring the matter up for a vote.

"The fact that the elections were a clear win for pro-legal reform candidates and issues was important, though there is no slam-dunk in the U.S. Senate," said Julie Rochman, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Insurance Association.

"Asbestos was a bipartisan issue in the last session," she said. "One of the things most promising about asbestos litigation reform was the Judiciary Committee. From one end of the ideological spectrum to the other, they agreed there is a problem with the asbestos compensation system, and congress is the place to fix it."

Still, there is a lot of work to do, she said, because the latest draft legislation leaves open the possibility that asbestos lawsuits could be filed, despite a trust fund to pay claims. Benefit levels also needed to be settled.

"You can't say to insurers, 'Dump billions of dollars into this trust fund, and if we go back into court, you'll pay those claims as well,'" she said. "Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to."

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