Less than a month ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that could potentially make life even more difficult for victims of asbestos exposure. Yesterday — February 3, 2016 — the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to discuss the bill and address concerns about transparency and privacy. The hearing was titled “The Need for Transparency in the Asbestos Trusts” and featured testimony from those who are both for and against the “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2015;” this bill contains text from another bill that was initially separate, the “Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act of 2015.”
The basis of this bill is simple: it seeks to compromise the privacy of asbestos victims by publishing a large amount of personal information in a database that can be accessed by anyone. It is allegedly promoting “transparency,” but this really only benefits the companies who manufactured asbestos-containing products, knowingly sold them to innocent people, and are now being held accountable for their despicable actions.
Supporters of Asbestos Victims Waged a War of Words in the Senate
The 2-hour hearing featured quite a bit of debate, with each side arguing their case. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a sponsor of the bill, asserted that with so much evidence of widespread fraud among asbestos claimants, bringing more transparency to the trust system is essential. There is no real evidence, however, of this type of fraud actually occurring.
Flake said he is also aware of the privacy concerns voiced by others, but that the bill would not require victims to share their medical records or full Social Security numbers. While this is true, he failed to mention that victims would be required to share a great deal of identifying information, including the last 4 digits of their Social Security numbers, asbestos exposure history, claim information, and any compensation received.
Opponents of the bill argued that forcing asbestos victims to allow their personal information to be published in a public database would make them prime targets for identity thieves and scam artists. They could also be discriminated against when applying for jobs or loans.
Another main issue with the bill, if signed in to law, is that asbestos companies would be able to demand any information they want from an asbestos trust at any time about any trust claimant. This would allow the defendant companies to drag out asbestos litigation with endless information requests — and one thing victims suffering from asbestos-related diseases don’t have is time. Most victims would die before receiving any kind of monetary relief…and that’s just what the asbestos companies are hoping for.
“The FACT Act would penalize Americans who are sick and dying from asbestos exposure, and many of them are veterans — in fact, 30% of the claimants of asbestos exposure are veterans,” argued Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). “And it would be an unwarranted giveaway to the companies that made the products that contained asbestos, made a profit from those products, and did so knowingly, knowing it was a dangerous and deadly fiber.”
Veterans Speak out against the FACT Act
Ahead of yesterday’s hearing, 17 national veteran groups wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing their opposition to the bill. The groups include the National Defense Council, Vietnam Veterans of America, the Air Force Sergeants Association, the Military Officers Association of America, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and AMVETS.
“The bill is a cynical ploy by the asbestos industry to avoid compensating its victims who are seeking justice in court — many of whom are veterans who were doubly exposed: first while in uniform and then when they worked for companies that knowingly exposed them to the deadly fiber,” the veteran groups wrote.
U.S. military veterans only make up about 8% of our country’s population, but like Senator Durbin said — they make up about 30% of asbestos exposure claims. That is because, due to its strength and resistance to heat, asbestos was used throughout Navy ships, in military barracks, and in military vehicles. Asbestos was everywhere, and the brave men and women that served our country were unknowingly put directly in harm’s way.
Will the FACT Act Make It through the Senate?
Yesterday’s hearing was the first step in moving the FACT Act through the Senate and a full chamber vote is necessary before it can move to the White House. Though the debate is certainly heated between the two sides, asbestos victims can take solace in the fact that the White House had publicly stated that if the bill passes the Senate, President Obama will veto it.
With an average of 10,000 Americans dying every year from asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, it seems unbelievable that this battle continues to be waged on Capitol Hill. Luckily, the person with the final say seems to understand how important privacy and justice is to victims of asbestos exposure.