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Critics say bill would "delay and deny" justice for asbestos cancer victims

The Michigan House passed a bill along party lines last week that would change how state courts deal with asbestos-related cancer cases.

Supporters of the Asbestos Bankruptcy Trust Claims Transparency Act would prevent “double-dipping” among some plaintiffs. Currently, victims of asbestos exposure can file claims in state courts against solvent asbestos companies, and an asbestos bankruptcy trust for insolvent companies.

But critics say the bill is written by the asbestos industry, and pushed in states across the country. They claim it would allow asbestos company defendants to request 60-day stays and delay trials for those cases almost indefinitely, so long as the defendants think the plaintiffs could file additional bankruptcy trust claims.

Jay Bedortha, a trial lawyer who represents clients with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers, says the goal is to “delay and deny justice” for victims until they die.

“The bottom line with this bill is it allows the asbestos companies to file motions in front of the state trial court judge as many times as they want to,” Bedortha said. “And we know from our experience that it’s very unusual for one of our clients that has been diagnosed with an asbestos-caused cancer to live much more than a year, maybe two years.

“This bill allows the defendants to control whether or not our clients, who are dying of cancer, are going to have a trial date during their lifetime, or whether the trial date has to wait until after they’ve passed away.”

Bedortha believes the law is also unnecessary in Michigan. He says state courts already require plaintiffs to submit any claims they’ve made against trust funds set up by bankrupt asbestos companies.

The premise that asbestos company defendants have to defend themselves without knowing about all the claims that have been filed “is just false,” Bedortha said. “There’s no ‘there’ there when they talk about the transparency part of this act. It’s already transparent in Michigan by court order.”

The bill passed the Michigan House last week by a 58-51 vote, with almost exclusively Republican support.

Democrats denounced the bill as boilerplate, industry-sponsored legislation that favors corporations over cancer victims.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, called it “a sad and shameful day for our state.”

“Some of those who are most impacted by asbestos exposure are our firefighters, construction workers, veterans, police and first responders,” Rabhi said. “Putting corporate donors above our first responders, construction workers and veterans is despicable.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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