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Asbestos issue is coming to a head

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON - April 02, 2005 - As victims of asbestos-related ailments commemorate Asbestos Disease Awareness Week, Congress returns next week from a two-week recess either on the cusp of a compromise over a controversial measure to deal with thousands of asbestos lawsuits or confronting a failure that could doom the entire process.

The Senate set aside yesterday as Asbestos Awareness Day, but Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., still is struggling to find consensus for compensating victims that would satisfy Republicans, Democrats, victims, manufacturers, insurers and lawyers.

Specter -- himself fighting Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes, and receiving chemotherapy every two week -- has said finding a resolution to what has been called the "asbestos litigation mess" won't be easy. But he said the decades-long process is now at a critical juncture.

Yesterday, victims of asbestosis -- encompassing not only cancer but also a variety of debilitating and fatal illnesses -- and supporters gathered in Washington for what is becoming a week of commemoration. They plan to wrap it up by encouraging candle-lighting ceremonies at 6 p.m. Thursday, in honor of an estimated 200,000 fatalities caused by asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma.

Asbestos fibers are still used in many consumer products, but in the last 30 years exposure has most commonly affected shipbuilders, steelworkers, autoworkers, firefighters, home remodelers (through insulation in older homes) and their families.

With hundreds of thousands of lawsuits pending against manufacturers and insurers, and an estimated 10,000 deaths a year, the court system is overwhelmed.

Specter wants to set up a national trust fund that some advocates say should be in the range of $140 billion. It would compensate victims for their illnesses, often so debilitating that they can't work and eventually lose their homes. But the bill also would prohibit lawsuits.

Insurers and some defendants in asbestos lawsuits now oppose a trust fund, however, and are demanding legislation that would set medical criteria to determine who is or isn't a victim -- intending to limit how many are permitted to sue. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. of Boston this week spearheaded a letter to lawmakers from insurers who argue that the trust fund idea should be scrapped in favor of reforming the litigation process.

The White House also has contended that there is too much litigation and vowed to protect businesses from what it asserts are often frivolous suits. In this year's State of the Union speech, President Bush said, "Justice is distorted, and our economy is held back, by irresponsible class actions and frivolous asbestos claims, and I urge Congress to pass legal reforms this year."

Trying to get the job done, Specter has found himself buffeted. Republicans want the pending bill watered down, and Democrats want it tougher.

Earlier this year, the Judiciary chairman said he was pleased to learn that "double-dipping" by people claiming to be victims of both asbestos and silica exposure is unlikely. But since then, other problems have arisen to block a compromise.

(Ann McFeatters can be reached at 202-662-7071 or

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