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Senate Judiciary Committee reexamines asbestos fund.

Newly installed as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) wasted little time resuming the debate over establishing a national trust fund to pay asbestos claims. On January 11--while Congress was on a three-week break before the inauguration--Specter convened the committee for a hearing on the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution (FAIR) Act.

Under the proposed bill, claims for asbestos-related disease would be processed through an administrative system and paid from a trust fund financed by asbestos defendants and their insurers. Victims would be allowed to return to the tort system if the fund proved incapable of paying claims.

After the FMR Act failed in the Senate last April, it underwent months of additional negotiation. Under the auspices of Specter's office, Senior Judge Edward Becker of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals presided at multiple meetings in 9004, seeking to achieve consensus among the "stakeholders," including asbestos defendants, insurers, organized labor, and trial lawyers.

Representing ATLA, attorney Michael Forscey participated in the discussions.

At the hearing, speaking for the association, he thanked Specter for his fairness and cited several improvements to the bill facilitated by Becker "that have moved us closer to the goal of a fair resolution for victims."

Forscey also outlined a series of overriding concerns, including specific substantive and procedural provisions, that still need to be addressed before the bill might be supportable. He said the proposed fund was inadequate to fully and fairly pay future claims. (Defendants and insurers told Congress that $140 billion is the highest sum they would be willing to contribute.) He rejected the insurers' demand that all pending claims be resolved by the fund, including some that have already resulted in a judgment or settlement.

"ATLA members represent the vast majority of the 500,000 existing victims who would lose--in unprecedented fashion--their constitutional right to a jury trial and be required to navigate a new bureaucracy to obtain compensation for the asbestos-related injuries they have suffered," Forscey testified. "These victims have filed claims, in good faith under the prevailing law, for which they can expect substantial recovery in the courts. To radically change the rules governing how these claims are to be adjudicated now is inherently unfair."

As TRIAL went to press, Specter was about to introduce a revised version of the bill and perhaps schedule it for committee consideration sometime in February. For an early-March update, see 0503/asbestos.
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Date:Mar 1, 2005
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