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G W Bush is backing former asbestos producers, like Halliburton, in pushing for a curb on asbestos c

Published by MAC on 2005-01-10

G W Bush is backing former asbestos producers, like Halliburton, in pushing for a curb on asbestos compensation suits. Trade Unionists and lawyers say it could amount to a denial of basic rights.

Bush Says Asbestos Suits Hurt US Economy

Environmental News Service (ENS)

January 10, 2005

Clinton Township, Michigan - US President George W. Bush urged Congress on Friday to curb asbestos litigation he said was putting too many US companies out of business and charged that frivolous lawsuits were harming the economy.

Limiting litigation is one of Bush's top economic priorities for his second term, along with adding private accounts to the Social Security retirement system and overhauling the tax code.

Corporate America has long sought legal reform, saying businesses are being hurt by runaway lawsuits. Opponents say many legal reform efforts are aimed at protecting special interests such as companies with asbestos liabilities.

"The system's not fair," Bush told a forum in Clinton Township, a Detroit suburb. "It's not fair to those who have been harmed. It's not fair to those who are trying to employ people."

The president said the lawsuits were hurting victims of asbestos-related illness because bankruptcies by companies resulting from claims lacking merit were leaving those with valid claims nowhere to turn for compensation.

The issue of asbestos lawsuits is a concern for Detroit's automakers, which have been sued by people who worked around brake parts with asbestos fibers.

Halliburton, the company Vice President Dick Cheney used to head up, said this week that it had completed a $4.2 billion asbestos settlement.

Asbestos is a fire-resistant mineral fiber once widely used in building materials. Scientists say inhaled fibers are linked to cancer and other illnesses.

Concern over price tag

A proposal by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter would take asbestos claims out of the courts and compensate victims from a trust funded by asbestos defendant companies and insurers.

Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, has left open the fund's overall price tag, but the last number known to be on the table was $140 billion. While many in the corporate world say that is too high, organized labor says at least $149 billion is needed.

Some trouble signs for the bill emerged earlier this week when US Chamber of Commerce chief Thomas Donohue said the Specter proposal for the compensation fund was too expensive.

One group of insurers took issue with the cost of the proposed fund and with provisions that could allow a return to the courts.

Carl Parks of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America urged lawmakers and Bush to keep working on the problem, saying there was a "dire necessity" for a solution. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he knew there were concerns about Specter's draft bill in the business community.

"But we need a vehicle to get the debate and discussions and legislative process started," he said in a telephone interview.

But the AFL-CIO labor organization said Bush had missed an opportunity to show genuine compassion for victims of asbestos disease, by failing to endorse creation of a trust fund.

Recent statements by prominent business leaders withdrawing their support for the fund were a "serious setback," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Some of their demands, he said, "will make it impossible to reach agreement" on a compromise.

Todd Smith, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, accused Bush of attacking the legal rights of Americans.

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