Reaching agreement on the asbestos fund

If agreement isn't reached soon on a bill establishing a $140bn asbestos compensation fund, US Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter warned the whole issue could be put in a "deep freeze". The bill would remove thousands of asbestos injury claims from the courts and settle them from the fund financed by asbestos defendant companies and re/insurers.

This effort would end "frivolous asbestos claims" from those who are not actually sick, but believe they could be in the future.

The labor lobby wants the trust fund to be enlarged. Business interests and re/insurers say even if the fund does match all known claims, what about those for silica damage, or for claims that appear in the future?

A main objection from companies which once produced, used or sold products containing asbestos is a provision that a company would be assessed based on its revenue, which would unfairly require some companies with few assets but huge liabilities to make large contributions.

While the federal government delays and frets, several states have taken action to control the mounting number of asbestosis cases. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled last year that asbestos plaintiffs must prove that they have a claim in the jurisdiction where they filed their complaint.

Such a ruling tempers the practice of consolidating plaintiffs across the US into a jurisdiction that favours large damage awards. In mid 2004, the Ohio legislature passed the first reform in the nation that allows courts to set aside the asbestosis claims of those who are not ill, but allows those cases to become active later.

What is certain, there will be no lessening of claims from asbestos exposure any time soon. A study by the Environmental Working Group predicts that between now and 2014, some 100,000 Americans will die from asbestos-related illnesses.

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