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A victory for accountability.

It was Valentine's Day, and dozens of lobbyists looked like someone had stolen their roses and put pits in their chocolate-covered cherries. They work for companies like Halliburton, Honeywell, and General Motors, which make up the Asbestos Study Group (ASG), and they were crestfallen because the U.S. Senate had just dealt a massive setback to their pet project: a bill that would have created an underfunded trust fund that could easily have been the worst of all worlds. The scheme would have deprived victims of fair compensation and required a massive public subsidy of private liability.

The bill went back to committee on a budget point of order, but not before the ASG and its allies had pulled out all the stops. The president himself had recently spoken about the bill. In one of those famous fumbles of language that often reveal his true thoughts, President Bush called for protection for "people who take risks." What he really wanted, of course, was protection for people who take risks with the lives, health, and safety of others.

When the bill looked like it was in trouble because a bipartisan coalition of fiscally responsible senators raised the budget issue, Senate leadership--that is, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.)--held it over the weekend. The pressure was intense, with the president taking valuable time away from the war on terror to make phone calls seeking support on a procedural vote. The ASG mounted a massive public relations campaign. Its spending of $49 million on paid media alone rivaled the famous "Harry and Louise" ads the insurance industry ran in the 1990s to prevent Americans from getting universal health care.

Surely, there will be other efforts to remove asbestos litigation from the courts or to expedite it in some way. ATLA, as always, is ready to discuss any reasonable alternative that provides full compensation for victims and fixes responsibility where it belongs--on the people who have made and still do make money from this poisonous product. (Many people believe asbestos is banned in the United States. Not so. In fact, the asbestos companies have successfully fought a ban, and they have imported more than 140 million pounds of the material into this country since 2000.)

You may be asking yourself, "Why should I care about asbestos?" The most obvious answer is that we should all care about the well-being of the thousands of people who still suffer from asbestos-related disease, which often takes the form of an incurable cancer. We should all care about those who will yet contract diseases from this toxin. And we should care because this industry knowingly exposed people to a cancer-causing product and covered it up for decades. If their liability can be wiped out, so can the accountability of every wrongdoer in the world.

The ATLA team remains dedicated to the proposition that the courts of America must be open to the people. We remain dedicated to the idea that corporations and their greedy CEOs should be held responsible, like everyone else, for the harm they do. We still believe that the social purpose of tort law is accident and injury prevention, and that the courthouse remains the only place where an ordinary citizen can demand accountability.

Rapid response

Even as we celebrate this victory for our clients, we need to remember that legislative success is not enough. It does no good for the courthouse to be open when the minds of those who sit in the jury box are closed. Decades of unwarranted and unanswered attacks on the civil justice system have left our jurors skeptical of litigation, and our clients are often embarrassed to use the courts. Wrongdoers who fear fair trials have no scruples about polluting the judicial atmosphere by inventing phony stories of cases that never existed.

That's why it's vital that ATLA continue its communications campaign. This program, still in its infancy, has already begun to make a difference.

When the civil justice system is attacked, we respond immediately, setting the record straight and getting the facts before the public. We're exposing the real beneficiaries of so-called tort reform, and, to no one's surprise, they always turn out to be insurance companies, big businesses, and their wealthy CEOs. We're finding common ground with people from across the political spectrum who believe in the Constitution.

In the coming months, I predict you'll see more and more articles and editorials in favor of retaining the right to trial by jury and against capping recoveries for the seriously injured. It won't always be apparent that ATLA is involved, since we've chosen not to conduct our campaign through paid media. Know, however, that we are there, earning those stories by doing the hard work of providing truthful and reliable information.
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Title Annotation:asbestos litigation
Author:Suggs, Kenneth M.
Article Type:President's page
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Previous Article:Hearsay.
Next Article:State asbestos bills would create obstacles for the injured.

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