Op Ed to the New York Times, May 18, 2005
Last Monday's New York Times ran an op-ed piece from Sen. Arlen Specter
(R-PA) regarding the asbestos trust fund legislation that he's trying
to ram through the Judiciary Committee. He attacked Dick Armey for opposing
the bill through Armey's FreedomWorks group. As a mesothelioma patient
myself, I offer my view on this issue, which is literally a matter of
life and death for thousands of Americans - possibly yourself, your children,
or your children's children.
Do not believe Arlen Specter's rosy picture of pending Senate asbestos
legislation. It is a gift to the perpetrators of many thousands of deaths
and unknowable suffering. Contrary to his claim, it does not propose a
no-fault system! The bill places the fault on the victim instead of the
perpetrator. Counter to Specter's claim that the victims will not
have to prove fault for their injuries, they will have to prove lengthy
occupational exposure to themselves or a family member. (My mesothelioma
apparently will not qualify me, even though I have multiple documented
occupational exposures.) Non-occupational exposures won't qualify
a victim for compensation, even though many cases happen that way. Because
the bill will stop all lawsuits, those who have asbestos disease but don't
qualify for coverage under the fund will have no recourse to the court
either. Those without medical insurance will be impoverished, to die in
agony while their families watch.
Those victims who are eligible for the trust fund will have to do about
the same amount of research to establish cause as is needed for a lawsuit,
but victims will be left without benefit of attorneys under this bill.
Today this research generally takes months of work by teams of attorneys,
paralegals and clerks. Who could do that research while dying of a horrible
disease? And how many could afford to pay someone out of their own pocket
to do the research, especially when the resulting compensation may barely
cover the research expenses, as will be the case for many victims? Many
will simply not file for compensation, and they will be without recourse
in the courts.
One must ask why any such victim should be allowed no day in court, when,
for example, the W. R. Grace executives who knowingly killed people for
profits at the Libby, MT, asbestos mine will have theirs? Why are the
victims lower than the lowest criminals in the eyes of certain senators?
The bill's $140 billion figure for company contributions to the trust
fund is a sham. Realistic estimates are that less than $70 billion will
come from the companies, and the rest will have to be borrowed from the
taxpayers. The borrowing will not be repaid from the fund, since it is
virtually designed to become insolvent after several years. As one Judiciary
Committee witness pointed out at the hearing I attended, why is $70 billion
in interest payments from the taxpayers a better solution than the $70
billion that the companies have paid to defend themselves against lawsuits?
The bill's sponsors claim that their aim is to fix the problem of victims
going unpaid because of company bankruptcies. If that is the problem under
discussion, why don't they fix the bankruptcy law that allows companies
like Halliburton to restrict the liability to one subsidiary and then
take that subsidiary bankrupt, leaving the rest of the company to post
record profits? The Federal Government just made it harder for private
citizens to file bankruptcy, but companies are having a field day with
the process in regard to their asbestos liability.
Contrary to what President Bush has said repeatedly, asbestos lawsuits
are not frivolous. That is a damnable insult to the memory of the half-million
Americans who have been killed by asbestos since World War II. It's
a slap at the 30 Americans who will die of asbestos disease today and
the 30 who will die of it tomorrow. Remember that America suffers the
equivalent of THREE 9-11's every year because of asbestos. We went
to war over 9-11; what are we doing about asbestos poisoning? As an expert
industrial hygienist pointed out to me yesterday, there is easily enough
asbestos loose in this country to contaminate every square inch of America
with hundreds, if not thousands, of asbestos fibers. And we continue to
import and use something like 6,000 metric tons every year. We don't
need to worry about foreign terrorists. We have enough in corporate America.
I've heard companies claim that if the trust fund isn't passed,
some 60,000 jobs will be lost. Well, I've lost jobs before. You get
another one. I don't know how they can be so concerned about that
when they're not concerned about the half-million lives lost already,
or the hundreds of thousands more that will be lost to asbestos disease
by the middle of this century. If they're so concerned, why don't
they put up a little more money to create 60,000 jobs in asbestos abatement,
disease prevention, and medical research?
As a plaintiff in a private mesothelioma lawsuit myself, I also object
to the bill's attempt to limit attorney's fees to 5% of compensation,
rather than the 30% or more that good trial attorneys can earn. I just
spent the last two days with my attorneys, and I am so pleased to have
them. They're doing a phenomenal job for me against companies that
are behaving so outrageously that they have angered even the judge! I'm
paying the going rate for competent help, I don't begrudge one penny,
and I don't need Sen. Specter in the middle of that business deal.
From my view, it's none of his business, nor is it the business of
the defendants, how much I choose to pay my attorney. The senator seems
to hate trial attorneys more than he wants to help victims. There are
some abusive attorneys, so fix that problem if you must, Sen. Specter,
but leave the rest of them alone.
You want to understand the motivation for this egregious bill? Follow the
money! Sen. Specter won't tell you this, but the truth is that he
and his Republican cohorts want to cut fees to liability trial attorneys,
whose job is to protect individual constitutional rights, because many
trial attorneys are major contributors to the Democratic Party! And with
this same bill, they want to improve profits for their own corporate contributors.
A noble step toward a one-party system, with fewer protections for individuals
against corporate and government abuse! You think they'll stop with
just asbestos liability?
Dick Armey's group opposes the bill on two assertions close to the
hearts of neo-conservatives: that it will set up a new bureaucracy that
costs the taxpayers, and that it will still reward trial attorneys by
guaranteeing them 5%. These are red herrings, from my view. Read his group's
material, and you'll understand that his true aim is a bill that would
be even harsher to the real victims. But he's right to oppose this
bill. In this case, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
I call on everyone who wants a stronger America, an America that can claim
moral leadership, to oppose S. 852 in total. If we really want to strengthen
America, we can do better!
Santa Rosa, CA