For many patients, the battle against mesothelioma and other diseases caused by asbestos exposure takes place not only in the hospital room, but also in the courtroom. Doctors and medical professionals do all they can for their patients, but we’re left with questions: Why do patients have to suffer from this preventable disease? What justice can we find for them when their health has been sacrificed due to the negligence and greed of others?
In the past month, we’ve seen several stories in the news that highlight the importance of our mission to continue to take this battle to the courts and to the halls of government—and in some cases expose the great lengths corporations will go to avoid being held responsible for their actions. Hopefully, these stories and ones like them will expose these injustices and raise awareness of the place of legislation and access to the courts in the battle against mesothelioma.
Virginia votes to protect one company against Asbestos Litigation
The first story we encountered comes from the Virginia legislature. In a move they’re calling “tort reform,” the Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill that protects a single company, Crown Cork & Seal, from asbestos litigation. While the bill, which was introduced by Republican delegate Terry Kilgore, doesn’t name the company, it can only apply to the Philadelphia-based firm.
While Crown Cork & Seal has never manufactured products containing asbestos, in 1963, it purchased Mundet, a producer of asbestos insulation. Since that purchase, the parent company has been named in more than 300,000 asbestos cases and paid out $600 million in expenses.
Kilgore calls the new measure to protect Crown Cork from asbestos litigation a “jobs bill,” which he says will protect the 300 workers employed at the company’s plants in Virginia. But the bill didn’t pass on the “jobs” argument alone. According to The Washington Post, in 2008, Crown Cork paid $25,095 for four lobbyists to help get the bill passed, and last year, it raised that price tag to $84,167 for seven lobbyists. The Virginia Public Access Project reports that the company has donated more than $100,000 to Virginia legislators since 2007.
And businesses such as Crown Cork have plenty of help ensuring that legislation goes their way. Crown Cork is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pro-business, free-market group that ghostwrites bills that support the interests of its members. The leading legislators behind this latest bill are also members of ALEC. Since 2006, the organization has been promoting this kind of asbestos legislation, which has been passed in 11 states.
So we’re left to wonder: What can we do to ensure that mesothelioma patients get a fair shake in the courts when businesses can fund the passage of laws that serve their own interests at the cost of those they harm?
Florida Courts consider retroactive application of Asbestos Ruling
The legal outcome may be a bit more hopeful in Florida, where the state’s Supreme Court has stepped in to consider a dispute over how to apply the 2005 Florida Asbestos and Silica Compensation Fairness Act. The law sets a standard for the evidence of physical impairment caused by asbestos exposure that must be proven when bringing a lawsuit.
Controversy arose when Palm Beach Circuit Judge Elizabeth Maass dismissed 13 cases for failing to meet the standard, even though those cases had been filed prior to the passing of the act. As Miami appellate attorney Joel Perwin argues, “You had a whole group of people who had claims that were viable under preexisting law, and the statute was specifically applied retroactively to abolish those claims.”
The case has also focused attention on the original statute, which sets a very restrictive set of criteria for those who wish to seek redress for the dangers they’ve been exposed to. Perwin has raised this issue himself, calling the statute “draconian.” As he notes, some clients with fatigue and shortness of breath may not even meet the standard for litigation.
We’ll keep an eye on this controversy, and hope that the Florida courts don’t decide to retroactively deny these patients the right to pursue their cases. When big industries have the ability to keep patients’ cases from being heard, we need to work harder than ever to give ensure that everyone who has suffered from exposure to asbestos has the opportunity to receive the justice they deserve.