Striking a Deal; Asbestos-Litigation Crisis May Be Resolved

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

Striking a Deal; Asbestos-Litigation Crisis May Be Resolved


Byline: Amy Ridenour, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Among conservatives, there is perhaps no senior figure in Washington more associated with compromise than Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican.

Considered conservative by liberals, Mr. Hatch frustrates conservatives. He's sponsored a federal tobacco tax increase bill with Ted Kennedy, promoted anti-gun measures and endorsed the destruction of healthy human embryos for stem-cell research. When he briefly ran for president against George W. Bush, he told The Washington Post "I think it is time to have someone who is not beholden to the Republican establishment."

But Mr. Hatch's penchant for pragmatism now is key to the solution to one of the most intransigent and undercovered problems of recent decades: the asbestos liability crisis.

Despite the tens of thousands unemployed, the bankruptcy of sixty-plus firms and a price tag likely to exceed the cost of the Iraq war, the asbestos crisis has attracted little notice outside of those directly affected.

Asbestos, a mineral, was once considered an industrial godsend. Because certain varieties do not burn or conduct heat and are resistant to chemicals, they were widely used for making fireproof materials, electrical insulation, roofing and filtering devices.

But if directly inhaled over long periods, asbestos can be lethal. During the first six decades of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of workers in mines, shipyards and factories worked largely unprotected from clouds of asbestos dust. Many developed debilitating diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, and died premature and painful deaths.

The EPA then overreacted, taking a zero-tolerance line against asbestos, falsely stating that even infinitesimal amounts of this mineral that most of us breathe daily poses a health hazard.

Personal-injury lawyers entered the fray. The first bankruptcies occurred in the 1980s. Huge awards encouraged lawsuits, even as defendants' links to asbestos weakened. By 2002, the Rand Institute of Civil Justice estimated a whopping 85 percent of America's major corporations were targets of asbestos lawsuits, as were tens of thousands of smaller businesses. Most had only a peripheral connection to the mineral.

Shockingly, evidence has revealed that little of the billions awarded are reaching sick plaintiffs. Huge legal expenses take 60 percent of the awards, while 65 percent of the funds left over have gone to persons who have no asbestos-related illness.

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