Senator Arlen Spector
After years of wrangling between trial attorneys seeking justice for asbestos victims and the corporations liable for millions of dollars in compensation, a bill creating a $140 billion asbestos trust fund passed in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday by a vote of 13-5. The legislation will move to the floor of the Senate.
"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," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
The bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and Leahy said the bill would "stem the rising tide of asbestos litigation cases clogging the nation's courts."
Circuit Judge Daniel Stack who handles asbestos cases in Madison County told The Record earlier this year he was uncertain that an asbestos trust fund would have the desired effect of expediency, convenience and a sense of finality for corporations.
"Is it really going to accommodate people who have an immediate need or will it drag them out longer?" he said. "It seems to me it would take a lot of people and not be an easy thing to start. As far as I'm concerned -- I don't want to sound lazy here -- but if it takes a load off my docket, that's fine. If it will have these great effects and alleviate problems...but I'm not sure it will do that."
Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, voted against the bill. Sens. Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, Joe Biden and Charles Schumer also voted "no."
"I say to the ranking member, you didn't get it right on this one," said Feingold. "The mere fact that you spent a large amount of time on it doesn't justify pre-empting people's rights in court."
Madison County Circuit Court has garnered a reputation for asbestos litigation; however trials here are few and far in between. Most of the cases brought in Madison County are settled out of court for millions of dollars.
For instance, Luke Lindau, an Arlington Heights man who suffers the deadly asbestos-causing disease mesothelioma, settled his Madison County case for $4 million in November 2004.
Yet, a recent and rare asbestos trial ended with a surprisingly small judgment against defendant Bondex.
After deliberating nearly nine hours over two days, Madison County jurors found in favor of plaintiff Willard King and awarded him and his wife only $500,000. He was asking for $50 million.
King, 78, of Fenton, Mo., blamed defendants for his deadly asbestos-related illness. He claimed he was contaminated from working on a home remodeling project in the early 1970s.
In April 2003, a Madison County jury ordered US Steel to pay Roby Whittington of Indiana $250 million for his asbestos-related illness. The case settled for much less following the trial.
Still many others who show no symptoms of illness file suit based on the inevitability that one day they will be sick from asbestos.
That's what Bill Kendall of Pocahontas did. Kendall, a retired Wood River Shell Oil refinery worker, filed suit in Madison County after he was recruited by former asbestos litigator Randall Bono in 1997 for a screening. Results indicated thickening in his lungs’ lining.
Kendall, who is represented by the Edwardsville firm Goldenberg, Miller, Heller and Antognoli, said he began receiving settlements from defendants named in his suit in 2001. He did not disclose how much he has received, but indicated he settled with approximately seven corporations, including Westinghouse, WR Grace and Celetex.
Judge Stack, who took over the Madison County asbestos docket last August, said he would not mind if federal action ends up taking
asbestos cases out of the county.
Republican Senators John Cronyn of Texas, Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma who voted in favor of sending the bill to the full Senate all said they will not support the bill on the floor of the Senate if changes were made.
Some of the worries included the funds' solvency, who would pay into the fund, and how much, medical criteria used in order to get money, and fears that in the transition period people could receive money from both the fund and the courts.