Lawmakers Urged to Ignore Asbestos Proposal

January 9, 2008

A leading expert on the way West Virginia’s courts handle asbestos claims urged legislators Sunday to avoid proposed changes to the system.
“Not only is it a mistake, it would be unnecessary,” retired Kanawha Circuit Judge Andrew MacQueen told an interim Judiciary subcommittee.

During his 22 years on the bench, MacQueen presided over thousands of cases in which workers alleged injuries from exposure to asbestos.

Highly prized for its ability to resist heat, asbestos was once found in a wide array of products. But when inhaled, its fibers cause several ailments that include asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs, and mesothelioma, an incurable form of cancer linked almost solely to asbestos exposure.

“For such a small state, for a number of reasons, West Virginia used an inordinate amount of asbestos-containing products,” said MacQueen, who retired in 2000.

Drawing from his courtroom experience, MacQueen also helped West Virginia’s Supreme Court develop a plan to manage the volumes of asbestos claims filed in the state. This Case Management Plan has since helped resolve tens of thousands of asbestos cases.

But MacQueen said proposed legislation would threaten that system. Pursued without success during the last several annual sessions, it would create new standards for the handling of evidence and the review of medical claims, among other provisions. It is expected to re-emerge when the Legislature begins this year’s 60-day regular session on Wednesday.

Insurance interests and the state Chamber of Commerce are among the bill’s supporters. But MacQueen said those involved in asbestos cases, including the companies targeted by claims and their lawyers, have praised the management plan as fair.

“There’s no reason for it,” MacQueen said of the bill. “None of the players in the asbestos litigation are coming to you asking for changes to this arrangement.”

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone and a physician, suggested the bill was necessary. He invoked “Unleashing Capitalism,” the recent book edited by West Virginia University economics professor Russ Sobel. It applies a libertarian approach to allege problems throughout the state, particularly with its court system.

MacQueen disagreed. He cited the recent study by two WVU political science professors, Richard Brisbin and John Kilwein. They found no objective data to support the allegations about West Virginia’s courts and civil lawsuit filings as expressed in Sobel’s book and elsewhere.

Such allegations also unfairly and inaccurately reflects the work he and his colleagues performed during his decades as a judge, MacQueen said.

“I’d like a half-hour to cross-examine Professor Sobel,” he said.

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