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Proposals would limit asbestos lawsuits in Texas

By BRANDI GRISSOM / Associated Press

02/16/2005 - Charles Kramer's battle with terminal cancer has taken him to the state Capitol. With oxygen tank in tow, he's there this week to ask lawmakers to carefully consider proposed changes to Texas' legal system involving the asbestos litigation system.

After working in Houston-area chemical and power plants for 22 years, Kramer, 77, has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a terminal cancer whose only known cause is asbestos.

He lays awake most nights worrying about how his wife and daughter will survive financially on just Social Security and the small pension left after he dies.

"There's just nothing I can do about it but wait to die," Kramer said, tears welling in his eyes.

Many lawmakers and business leaders are calling for change in the asbestos litigation system they say unfairly rewards people who are not sick at the expense of those who are.

Kramer, who now lives in Brenham, was diagnosed almost a year ago with mesothelioma, an untreatable cancer that has invaded the lining of his stomach. He needs monthly doctor visits to remove about three liters of fluid from his abdomen.

To help cover mounting medical costs and provide for his wife, Mae Lorene, and daughter, Cheryl Ann, he's suing many of the companies he worked for that used asbestos products and the companies that made them.

Kramer knows changing the legal system now wouldn't necessarily affect his case, but it might make it harder to sue for hundreds of others who worked around asbestos.

Lawmakers and business leaders looking to stop what they call a flood of frivolous lawsuits say the state's asbestos litigation system victimizes the truly sick while lining the pockets of unscrupulous trial lawyers. When money from nearly bankrupt companies goes to people who aren't sick from asbestos exposure, they say, those companies aren't able to pay those who suffer the most.

Critics say changes to the system would limit access to courts for asbestos victims and give immunity to companies that knowingly put Texans in harm's way.

"We've got lawyers getting rich where a lot of the very sick people are not," Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a speech Tuesday to Texans for Lawsuit Reform. His comments echo those of Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick, both Republicans, who have said they also back changing the way asbestos cases are treated in Texas.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform wants lawmakers to limit the number of asbestos claims to only the seriously ill and allow people who are not yet sick but were exposed to asbestos to file lawsuits later, when they do become ill.

Thousands of asbestos settlements have resulted in dozens of companies filing bankruptcy, which translates into lost wages and tax revenue for Texas, according to the group.

The group's proposed legislation would apply the limits to civil lawsuits adopted by the 2003 Legislature to all asbestos cases that come to trial, regardless of when the lawsuit was filed.

"The sooner the healthy claimant is removed from the civil justice process, the quicker true victims will get full compensation and quick settlements and judgments," said Ken Hoagland, TLR spokesman.

Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, chairman of the House civil practices committee and sponsor of the contentious lawsuit limiting legislation in 2003 that capped damages non-economic damages for medical malpractice lawsuits, plans to sponsor the asbestos bill.

He said he doesn't expect it to draw as much ire from Democrats as did the 2003 legislation.

"We're drafting a bill that accomplishes fairly what needs to be done," he said. "We don't want to go too far — this is all about doing what's fair and just."

Kyle Janek, R-Houston, plans to file the bill in the Senate.

Although most don't expect a battle over asbestos litigation as pitched as the ones that marked hours-long lawsuit limiting debates in 2003, resistance is forming in and outside of the Capitol.

Brent Coon, a Beaumont litigator who tries many asbestos cases, said the proposed changes are "garbage."

"Millions of people have been exposed to and harmed by asbestos fibers, and it costs a lot of money to compensate those people," he said. "Those industries, frankly, just don't want to pay it."

The proposed changes, Coon said, unfairly limit access to courts for victims of an industry that knew for decades it was subjecting hundreds of thousands of people to a carcinogen.

The proposed legislation would require people who have already been tested for asbestos-related disease to be tested again under new standards, said Alex Winslow, spokesman for Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy group.

"We should not be changing the rules midstream," he said.

Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, said any legislation that attempts to take away Texans' rights will face opposition.

"I just think we ought to be careful as we start that, because once you start it where do you stop," he said.

Charles Kramer hopes to convince more lawmakers to think like Eiland.

"If this goes through, I won't be alive to see it," he said.

But he said it is worth the fight to prevent his work buddies from living his hell.

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