Broad industry support-including that of the Rubber Manufacturers Association and the Tire Industry Association-is behind a bill by Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., to limit industry exposure to asbestos-related liability litigation.
Organized labor and plaintiffs' attorneys, however, attacked the bill as inherently unfair to those injured by asbestos exposure.
Introduced Feb. 13, the Asbestos Claim Criteria and Compensation Act of 2003 sets forth strict medical criteria under which prospective claimants may sue corporations and other potential defendants in an asbestos-related case. These include a qualified physician's diagnosis of impaired pulmonary function, radiological evidence of asbestosis or pleural thickening, and the physician's determination that asbestosis or pleural thickening is a major cause of the patient's pulmonary impairment.
Under the Nickles bill's provisions, a court may consolidate for trial any number and type of asbestos cases with the consent of all parties. But without such consent, it may consolidate only asbestos claims relating to the same plaintiff and members of his or her household.
Asbestos-related suits can be brought only in plaintiffs' states of residence or the states where asbestos exposure occurred, except when plaintiffs have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related cancers and have life expectancies of less than three years.
The plaintiff must file a written report and supporting test results to back the claim of injury, and the defendant has ``a reasonable opportunity'' to rebut the plaintiff's report. If the judge finds the plaintiff hasn't made his prima facie case, he must dismiss it, although the plaintiff may refile at any time.
Unchecked and often frivolous asbestos litigation has eaten away at the nation's economic health, according to the bill's preamble. ``An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 workers have lost their jobs as a direct result of asbestos litigation and related bankruptcies of defendant companies, and each displaced worker will on average lose between $25,000 and $50,000 in lost wages,'' it stated.
At the Aftermarket Legislative Summit Feb. 25-26-sponsored by TIA, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association and several other auto aftermarket organizations-the Nickles bill was one of three legislative priorities for delegates, along with repair information access and Association Health Plans.
``Sen. Nickles' bill is fair to those who are sick, or may become sick, as well as being fair to the businesses, employees, pensioners, shareholders and others in communities who have been forced to pay for frivolous claims,'' said AAIA President and CEO Alfred L. Gaspar in a press release. Asbestos litigation has led to the bankruptcies of several major automotive brake manufacturers and distributors, Mr. Gaspar said at the summit.
The RMA is in an asbestos litigation reform coalition with the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry groups, according to Ann Wilson, RMA senior vice president of government affairs. There are a number of reform proposals, including one from the American Bar Association, but ``we have to congratulate Sen. Nickles in his willingness to move this issue forward,'' Ms. Wilson said. ``Our goal is to decrease unnecessary litigation.''
Labor representatives and trial lawyers, however, claim the Nickles bill sets the bar unreasonably high for proof of asbestos-related injury.
Asbestos litigation reform is just one of several tort reform measures before Congress this year, Ms. Wilson noted. Its chances of passage are unclear, although ``we're looking at the possibility of its passage,'' she said.