A bill intended to reduce the volume of lawsuits seeking damages for diseases caused by working with or near asbestos and criticized by consumer advocates is on its way to the governor’s desk.
The bill passed the House in January and, with Wednesday’s Senate’s 19-14 vote, heads to Gov. John Kasich, who has indicated he’ll sign the bill.
Four Republicans joined Senate Democrats voting against House Bill 380: Scott Oelslager of Canton, Gayle Manning of Ridgeville, Frank LaRose of Fairlawn and Jim Hughes of Columbus.
Ohio has the eighth highest rate of deaths due to mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preble County had the highest rate for deaths by mesothelioma in Ohio for 2000-04. Butler and Greene counties also rank in the top 20 in Ohio.
Ohio also has a long list of pending lawsuits. Reforms in 2004 eliminated more than 34,000 cases.
The bill targets duplicate lawsuits to companies and asbestos bankruptcy trusts, funds created by bankrupt companies to pay damages associated with on-the-job exposure to the fibrous material. Victims who sue still-solvent companies do not have to disclose claims made against these trusts.
Rep. Lou Blessing, R-Cincinnati, said the bill does not intend to limit victims’ ability to reclaim damages. Supporters, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say the reforms will make resolving asbestos claims more transparent and efficient.
A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation found the 26 largest asbestos trusts paid more than $10.8 billion in claims. Without transparency regarding the trusts, supporters argue, victims are able to sue and collect twice for the same injury.
Tom Bevan, an Akron attorney who represents asbestos victims, said the bill unfairly favors companies.
“The asbestos industry got a bailout in 2004 and they’re back for more,” Bevan said. “It wasn’t enough for them to get rid of 90 percent of the cases. They want to stick it to the sickest of the sick in these pending cases.”
The Ohio State Bar Association did not support the bill, preferring the issue be addressed through court rules.
Similar legislation has been introduced in several states, but Ohio would be the first to have such a law. A nearly identical bill was rejected in Oklahoma earlier this year.
Sen. Mike Skindell, D-Lakewood, voted against the bill and said the changes would make it impossible for a dying asbestos plaintiff to get a fair trial on his or her case.
“Ohio and America’s workers are suffering from asbestos related diseases such as mesothelioma because of corporate greed,” Skindell said on the Senate floor.
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