Mich. Lawmakers Consider Asbestos Reform Legislation

May 22, 2006

Michigan state lawmakers this week will consider legislation aimed at reforming asbestos litigation, which manufacturers say has caused more than 70 business bankruptcies and cost at least 60,000 jobs nationwide.

The Republican-controlled House Tort Reform Committee could vote Tuesday on a bill that would specify when asbestos or silica lawsuits can be filed.

Under the proposal, people could not sue unless they have a physical impairment that is substantially attributable to asbestos or silica exposure. Damages for pain and suffering would be limited to $250,000, or three times the amount of economic losses, whichever is greater.

Asbestos is a fire-retardant material made up of fibers that cause illness when inhaled. The illness can lie dormant for decades.

Litigation can hurt companies that made insulation and fireproofing material decades ago, partly because future victims might be seeking damages for years to come.

The bill (HB 5851), sponsored by Republican Rep. Ed Gaffney of Grosse Pointe Farms, would cap attorney fees at 20 percent of a settlement or verdict. Plaintiffs also would have to meet criteria before proceeding with their case.

The House hearing would come a day before the Michigan Supreme Court holds a public hearing on a proposal to consolidate all asbestos cases in Wayne County. The proposal also would set up a system of active and inactive cases, so those who are sick would have their case heard sooner while those who aren’t yet sick would wait.

Congress also is considering a bill to reform asbestos litigation.

That measure would create a trust fund to compensate people made ill by exposure to asbestos while shielding manufacturers and insurance companies from multimillion-dollar lawsuits from people with asbestos-related diseases.

Critics say the trust fund doesn’t compensate victims enough and may not cover people who later develop asbestos-related diseases, which often take decades to develop.

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