ALEC Puts the Screws to Asbestos Victims

Posted May 22, 2012 in Consumer Law by

Craig Grigonis, a third generation insulation installer in Michigan, watched his father die in 1987 of mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer with one known cause: exposure to asbestos.

Before he died, his father James, who worked with insulation made of asbestos, sued the company that made the toxic substance and recovered some of his medical bills.

But thanks to a brand new law in Michigan pushed by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), workers like Craig Grigonis are out of luck if they develop cancer or die from asbestos exposure.


“They want plaintiffs to die”

Asbestos is still legal in the U.S. Every year, 9,000 Americans are stricken with asbestos-related illnesses, like lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Workers who have been most exposed include pipefitters, shipworkers, including U.S. Navy personnel, and construction workers.

Because asbestos was in widespread use in an array of products in the 1960s and 70s, and it takes a latency period of 20 to 40 years for asbestos-related diseases to emerge, many consumers are just now getting sick and filing suite based on their exposure to the toxic substance.

Lawyers who represent asbestos victims say asbestos makers have known about its dangers since as early as 1949, and now that the litigation is picking up, the model bills are a new delay tactic.

Attorney Juan Bauta

“They want to delay, delay, delay because they want plaintiffs to die,” said Juan Bauta,a Florida attorney who represents asbestos victims.

The Michigan law was based on a model ALEC bill (Successor Asbestos-Related Liability Fairness Act) that 16 states have now passed and that gives virtual immunity to corporations that purchased an asbestos-making company.


‘FACT’ or fiction?

Another ALEC bill interferes with how asbestos victims can recover damages: the FACT Act (“Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency”).

But is the problem fact or fiction?

It is supposed to address double-dipping by asbestos victims, but it’s “a solution in search of a problem,” says Charles Siegel, a lawyer who represents mesothelioma victims.

Under the current process, some companies that made asbestos chose to file for bankruptcy and create an asbestos trust. They set up a schedule of payments for different types of injuries caused by their asbestos product. These bankrupt companies cannot be sued in court.

Under the FACT bill, asbestos victims must reveal which companies’ asbestos trusts they have submitted claims or received payments from.

“It’s basically to make sure a plaintiff isn’t telling one story in going after a trust, then alleging different facts when suing a company in court,” said Amy Kjose Anderson, director of ALEC’s civil justice task force.

Siegel said that there is no way a plaintiff can double-dip because state law allows a person who gets sick from asbestos products made by several manufacturers to sue all of them for damages.

Juan Bauta, another attorney who represents people injured by asbestos, called the bill “very dangerous” for his clients.

“The asbestos defendants are actively trying to shift blame to the bankrupt defendants. They want to create the impression that what’s really going on here is the plaintiff is pulling a fast one [by suing the wrong company]. They want to be able to point at an empty chair,” said Bauta.

No states have passed the bill — yet.

Another model ALEC bill gives corporations a leg up in asbestos lawsuits by changing the rules on how injured people can collect from companies that make and sell asbestos.

And earlier this month, a federal bill was introduced in Congress based on an ALEC model bill.

Grigonis, the insulation worker and business manager of the Heat and Frost Insulators Local 47, said he and his union members continue to work with asbestos when removing old insulation made of the material.

“The product is still out there every day,” he said.

Besides worrying about getting cancer from his own direct exposure to asbestos, people like Grigonis can contract cancer from second-hand exposure from breathing in particles that family members who worked with asbestos brought home on their clothes. Under the new law, he would not be able to sue for either type of injury.

“What do I do? The stuff that my father brought home when I was a child comes from Crown Cork and Seal or Mundet Asbestos, the company it bought. Where do I turn? Where do my members turn?” he asked.

‘Corporate Bailout’ Bill

The law that passed in Michigan and 15 other states says that if a company purchased an asbestos-making company, the parent company is only liable for asbestos injuries up to the amount it paid for the company.

For companies like Crown, Cork and Seal, which purchased Mundet Asbestos in the mid-1960s, the company is immune from further suits because it has already paid out more in asbestos lawsuits than it paid for Mundet, based on the price it paid 50 years ago.

Crown, Cork and Seal is a member of ALEC, according to Source Watch.

Thomas Smith, a Michigan attorney who represents asbestos victims, called the law “a corporate bailout that gives total immunity for any company who bought or merged with a company in the business of asbestos.”

States where the law has passed are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi,, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota ,Texas, Wyoming, and Utah.

According to Smith, ALEC was instrumental in helping corporate members pass laws that limit victims’ rights in asbestos lawsuits.

“They bought an asbestos company and, rather than be stuck with their liabilities, they want to undo their bad business decision and go to the legislature. Because ALEC is there, they made it happen,” Smith said.

David Thompson, an attorney in North Dakota who represents people injured by asbestos, said ALEC was “caught red-handed” holding parties for legislators and lobbying them for two weeks in 2009 when his state held hearings on the bill.

Mark Behrens, an attorney with Shook, Hardy & Bacon, was forced to register as a lobbyist for Crown Cork & Seal and ALEC, hours before he testified in state hearings, according to Thompson. Shook, Hardy & Bacon chairs ALEC’s civil justice task force which drafts many of the bills limiting consumers from suing corporations.

“It appears to be the only time ALEC was caught lobbying,” said Thompson.

ALEC has been accused of masquerading as a tax-exempt charity while actually performing lobbying activities on behalf of its corporate members. Government watchdog group Common Cause has filed a complaint with the IRS over the issue.

Behrens could not be reached for comment despite numerous attempts to contact him.

Meanwhile, back in Michigan, Grigonis recently got a call from a member of his union who just got the fatal diagnosis of mesothelioma.

“He’s only a few years older than me,” said Grigonis, who is 53. “Where will he turn for compensation?” he asked.

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