Class Action Lawsuit, Asbestos Legislation Would Make Most Claims Impossible, Group Warns
A number of consumer watchdog groups are warning that new legislation likely to be approved in the U.S. House of Representatives could cause serious harm to the legal rights of consumers, protecting businesses from liability for illegal activity and sacrificing the ability for victims of corporate wrongdoing to hold companies accountable through class action lawsuits and asbestos exposure claims.
On January 6, a number of groups, including the Alliance for Justice, Public Citizen, Consumer Watchdog, and the National Association of Consumer Advocates, among others, sent a letter (PDF) to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, asking them to block bill H.R. 1927, the “Fairness in Class Action Litigation and Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2015.”
The groups claim that the bill will “interfere with state legal systems without justification, severely invade the privacy of asbestos victims and their families, and delay and deny justice to people suffering from lethal asbestos-related diseases.”
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The legislation may make it virtually impossible for consumers to file class action lawsuits in most cases, and cause substantial burdens and delays for individuals bringing claims for injuries suffered as a result of asbestos exposure.
“While it may seem like an opportune time to legislate in the area of asbestos litigation, this bill is extremely misguided,” the letter states. “It will do little more than harm dying victims (including many former Navy shipyard workers), while advantaging the big corporations responsible for compensating them.”
The bill is expected to stall in the Senate, and on January 6, the White House issued a press release (PDF) saying that President Barack Obama’s staff would advise him to veto the bill if it makes it to his desk.
At issue are Sections 2 and 3 of the legislation, which is expected to pass along party lines with Republicans supporting it and most Democrats opposed.
Section 2 would block class action lawsuits unless the individuals involved have the “same type and scope of injury,” which Public Citizen said in a press release issued last week, would prevent most class action lawsuits because of the slim odds that plaintiffs injured by a product would suffer the exact same injuries to the exact same degree.
Section 3, which used to be stand-alone bill H.R. 526, the “furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act, calls for asbestos trusts set up to compensate asbestos victims to publish private, confidential information on plaintiffs on public websites. Critics say the proposal would also delay payouts for asbestos victims who often suffer from illnesses like mesothelioma, whose life expectancy is often measured in months, preventing them from receiving the compensation while they are still alive.
The trusts have told legislators that the bill would put a substantial burden on them to gather the requested information, delaying potential payouts.
“This bill is an unfair and unwarranted imposition on people who are likely to die because the asbestos industry covered up the dangers of asbestos for over 50 years and still insists on confidentiality today,” the letter warns. “Moreover, the information that will go on these public sites includes victims’ names, addresses, medical information, how much they received in compensation, and the last four digits of their social security numbers. This extreme invasion of privacy will make victims and their families vulnerable to predators, con artists, and unscrupulous businesses who will scour these sites for information.”
Proponents of the bill say it will prevent fraud and cut down on asbestos plaintiffs who they say use secrecy to “double dip” into the asbestos trust funds by getting multiple payouts because their identities are hidden. However, critics note that the bill does not require companies to reveal any information, such as where the exposures occurred or any other information to help claimants in their cases.
Asbestos has been used in a variety of manufacturing and building industries, but most uses in the United States were banned more than 30 years ago. However, asbestos may cause a variety of ailments, such as mesothelioma, that do not surface until decades after exposure.
In 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the number of asbestos deaths from mesothelioma were continuing to rise, but were expected to have peaked by now as more time passes since the substance was banned.
Asbestos lawsuits involving mesothelioma and other injuries have been one of the largest mass-torts in U.S. history, with more than 600,000 people having filed a case against more than 6,000 defendants after being diagnosed with mesothelioma or other related injuries that were allegedly caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.
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