- About Us
- Take Action
- Make a Donation
“Paying for Asbestos ”
Sen. Specter Op-ed
FOR over two decades, Congress has wrestled unsuccessfully with the difficult problem of asbestos. Now, with Congress about to produce legislation that will compensate Americans hurt by asbestos without clogging the courts and causing undue economic hardship, Dick Armey, a Republican and the former House majority leader, has led a huge and misleading advertising campaign to defeat the bill.
The bill, which Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and I introduced last month with broad bipartisan support, would use a $140 billion trust fund to pay asbestos victims in a no-fault program similar to workers' compensation. Workers exposed to asbestos would be paid based on severity of injuries without proving in court who would be liable under existing tort laws, eliminating the high costs of litigation. Unlike current law, under which those who have been exposed to asbestos may be compensated for potential future injuries, damages can be collected only on proof of existing harm. These and other provisions are the result of 40 bargaining sessions over the last two years among manufacturers, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., insurers and trial lawyers.
But in radio ads that have run in 15 states, Mr. Armey says the bill would levy $140 billion in new taxes to create a federal trust fund for asbestos victims. He knows better. Manufacturers, which are liable for asbestos injuries, and their insurers have offered to create the $140 billion trust fund to avoid further liability. The bill is explicit that the federal government would pay nothing into the fund.
Mr. Armey also asserts that the fund would set aside billions of those tax dollars as payoffs to trial lawyers. In fact, the bill caps lawyers' fees at 5 percent, compared with current contingent fees of 33 percent.
What Mr. Armey didn't tell his radio listeners was that, as reported by the Washington newspaper Roll Call, the lobbying firm that he works for has received nearly $1 million from Equitas, a British insurer that has fought to stop this legislation. Posing as a disinterested spokesman on behalf of the public interest, Mr. Armey is instead just another paid lobbyist spreading disinformation.
Thousands of asbestos victims suffering from deadly diseases are uncompensated because of the insolvency of the asbestos-related companies that are prospective defendants. I stand ready to work with responsible critics to resolve any remaining issues. Each month, additional companies join the more than 70 already in the bankruptcy courts. The economy has taken a terrific beating with these bankruptcies and the losses of thousands of jobs. If we can put the finishing touches on this bill, we can produce a triple-win for asbestos victims, companies facing bankruptcy and the economy in general.
Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a Republican senator from Pennsylvania.