Wisconsin could become the latest state to narrow access to the courts for asbestos victims in a bill up for a vote on March 20, joining a national coordinated effort that can be traced back to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Rep. Andre Jacque, a member of the ALEC Civil Justice Task Force, introduced Assembly Bill 19 in April of 2013. A version of the legislation passed the Wisconsin Senate last week on a nearly party line vote, and is now before the Assembly. It resembles the ALEC "Asbestos Claims Transparency Act," which was adopted as a "model" by members of the ALEC Civil Justice Task Force in 2007. In December of 2012, Ohio became the first state to pass the legislation. In the 2013 session, nearly identical legislation has been introduced in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Illinois and Texas.
The legislation would benefit corporations like Crown Holdings, a Fortune 500 company with over $8 billion in annual sales that has worked with ALEC for years to legislate its way out of compensating asbestos victims, as well as ALEC member Honeywell International, which has faced significant asbestos liability in recent years.
The bill could allow corporations like Crown Holdings or Honeywell to delay a lawsuit until a victim files claims with any other asbestos or personal injury "trust funds," which are accounts set up after a company goes bankrupt to pay claims to injured parties. This requirement, advocates say, is intended to drag out a case until after a sick victim dies — an especially pointed concern given that asbestos cancer victims usually die within a year after being diagnosed. Families often don’t continue litigation after the victim dies, and juries change their assessment of the case, advocates say.
Asbestos-related diseases kill at least 10,000 Americans every year, in many cases from mesothelioma, an incurable and painful cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. For decades, asbestos was used for insulation and industrial purposes, and the diseases particularly affect veterans, firefighters, construction workers, and individuals who worked in factories with high-heat machinery. In Wisconsin, veterans groups have been some of the most vocal opponents of the legislation: veterans make up just 8 percent of the population, but are 30 percent of mesothelioma cases.