WASHINGTON (Feb. 8)—The Senate was scheduled today to begin debate on a bill that would establish a $140 billion trust fund to settle thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits.
Asbestos manufacturers and insurance companies would finance the fund, which would base payments on the type and severity of each claimant's disease. Attorneys' fees would be capped, and asbestos manufacturers and their insurers would be exempted from further litigation.
Trial lawyers and consumer groups vehemently oppose the bill: "The federal trust fund is, in reality, an industry plan to wipe out tens of billions of dollars in corporate liability under the guise of helping victims," Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said in a news release.
The auto aftermarket, however, supports the legislation because small garages and auto parts retailers that sell or service brake systems are being roped into lawsuits. "The last time I was involved in this issue, I saw that some of the class action suits were naming parts stores," said Paul Fiore, director of government and business relations at the Tire Industry Association. "That's one step away from our guys."
The House of Representatives—whose version of the asbestos bill, unlike the Senate legislation, includes medical criteria that claimants must meet before they can collect from the trust fund—is waiting for the Senate to complete action before it brings its bill to the floor, according to Aaron Lowe, vice president of government affairs for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association.
As many as 80 corporations—including auto parts giant Federal-Mogul Corp.—have been forced to file for bankruptcy protection because of asbestos litigation.