Veterans call for end to asbestos lawsuit bill

The Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison is seen, Jan. 14, 2014.
The Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison is seen, Jan. 14, 2014.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Veterans opposed to a bill affecting asbestos-exposure lawsuits in Wisconsin urged Gov. Scott Walker on Monday to stop the measure, arguing that it would deny justice to asbestos victims.

The heavily lobbied proposal would require plaintiffs who have suffered from asbestos exposure to reveal how many businesses their attorneys plan to sue. They would also have to go after money from an asbestos trust before they could sue for more in court.

Proponents, including Wisconsin’s chamber of commerce and Republican sponsors, argue the bill is needed to prevent filing multiple claims against both trust funds set up to pay victims of asbestos exposure as well as individual businesses.

Opponents who gathered Monday strongly disagreed.

“If you think that the bill is protecting the rights of victims, it is not. It is about protecting corporations,” said a tearful Renee Simpson, state commander of the Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars. She held up a picture of her dad, a U.S. Army veteran, who died in 2013 nine months after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

The Senate passed the bill last week on a narrow 17-16 vote. A similar version previously passed the Assembly and it’s expected to pass again Thursday, the last day of the session, which would send it to Walker.

While Walker hasn’t said yet whether he would sign or veto the bill, his spokeswoman issued a statement Monday signaling that he may support it.

“It is important to note this bill is about ensuring transparency in the lawsuit process to stop trial lawyers from double dipping,” said Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster. “Preventing double dipping will help make sure there will be resources available for the truly injured down the road.”

The issue has divided veterans. Steve Chesna, state commander of AMVETS, sent a letter in January supporting the bill, saying it will ensure that “valuable resources are not depleted by unscrupulous lawyers convincing clients to double and triple dip for one individual for one claim.”

That concern over plaintiffs suing both businesses and the trust funds in order to maximize their awards has been the rallying cry of proponents from the beginning, said Jason Johns, legislative officer for the Wisconsin Military Order of the Purple Heart.

But under changes made to the bill by the Senate “there’s no way to hide a claim,” Johns said. The bill now requires those bringing a lawsuit to disclose within 30 days whether they are also seeking money from a trust, Johns said.

The bill originally required there to be a six-month delay before a trial could start, after a claim was stated, but the Senate removed that. Now it is all about disclosing multiple claims, said its sponsor, Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend.

“I don’t know what anyone would object to,” he said.

Asbestos, a building material linked with cancer and other health problems, has been the subject of lawsuits awarding billions of dollars in damages. As health concerns became clearer, and the number of lawsuits swelled, companies forced into bankruptcy because of asbestos litigation transferred their assets and liabilities to trusts established to pay current and future asbestos victims.

At least 100 companies have gone into bankruptcy in part from liabilities tied to asbestos, according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report. There are 60 asbestos trusts, with about $37 billion in assets, according to the GAO report.

Opponents of the bill, including Senate Democrats who were united against it last week, said it is designed to slow lawsuits down in the hopes plaintiffs will die and thereby protect corporations from making payouts.

In addition to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, other opponents include the Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars, Wisconsin American Legion, the trial attorney group the Wisconsin Association for Justice and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

Supporters, including Republican sponsors in the Legislature, have argued that trial lawyers who bring the lawsuits are the ones who are most opposed to the changes and are using veterans as shields in the debate.

Records from the Government Accountability Board show that nearly 2,000 hours were spent by supporters and opponents to lobby lawmakers on the bill last year alone. Records for this year so far have not yet been filed.

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