New rules sought on asbestos suits

By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Bill Lueders, Money and Politics Project director

In April, Renee Simpson told a state legislative committee about her father, who was diagnosed last fall with mesothelioma, a virulent form of cancer associated with asbestos. While he was too weak to travel, she said, he considered the legislation she had come to testify against “unconscionable.”

SB 13 and its companion, AB 19, would impose additional reporting and procedural requirements on individuals suing companies over asbestos, a fiber once used widely in insulation and building materials. Their cases could not go to trial until they filed any possible claims against the various personal injury trusts established by now-defunct asbestos manufacturers.

Proponents of the bills, sponsored by state Rep. Andre Jacque, R- De Pere, and Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, say the change is needed to prevent plaintiffs from “double-dipping” — seeking additional money from the trusts after getting everything they can from existing manufacturers. Their evidence of this occurring in Wisconsin is scant.

Opponents say asbestos lawsuits in Wisconsin are already tough enough. Only nine such suits were filed last year, in a state which annually has about 80 asbestos-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bills are opposed by veterans groups including Veterans of Foreign Wars Wisconsin, of which Simpson is state commander. She says 30 percent of mesothelioma cases involve veterans, who make up just 8 percent of the population.

Dennis Lockington died of mesothelioma within a year of his diagnosis. Photo courtesy Renee Simpson.

Simpson’s father, Dennis Lockington, was exposed to asbestos during his military service, in barracks and on naval ships, and afterward, when he worked at several foundries. Simpson herself encountered asbestos while serving as an Army medic in Bosnia.

The bills, part of an array of “tort reform” legislation sought by state Republicans, are among the session’s hottest issues, generating nearly 1,100 hours of reported lobbying in just the first half of 2013. About half was by industry proponents and half by foes including the Wisconsin Association for Justice, representing trial lawyers, and the Wisconsin Asbestos Victims Network, a new state nonprofit.

Assembly and Senate committees have both recommended passage on party-line votes, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against. The bills could be voted on this month.

Trevor Will, a Milwaukee attorney who testified in favor of the bills on behalf of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, a coalition of business interests, denies that they create unfair burdens. He says plaintiffs just have to do what they’re already doing, only earlier, to prevent abuse.

But Nancy Rottier, legislative liaison for the state court system, says the legislation as written would require statements on potential trust claims in all personal injury lawsuits. In 2012, there were 6,350 such actions filed in state court.

This would mean, for example, that you couldn’t sue your neighbor for accidentally blowing up your house without filing a separate document stating that your neighbor has not created a trust for such purposes. Will dismisses objections to this new requirement, calling this filing “hardly a monumental burden.”

The bills could also make plaintiffs file all possible trust claims, whether they want to or not. Jill Rakauski, an attorney who represents asbestos victims, says the payouts for some trusts are lower than the nonrefundable $100 filing fee. Will is open to letting plaintiffs forgo pursuing claims when this does not make sense. But the current bill contains no such exception.

Dennis Lockington died in May, at age 68. Simpson says he was able to initiate legal action against the foundries where he worked before his death.

“You kind of suffocate,” Simpson says through tears. “He couldn’t breathe very well and the medications they gave him made him very sick. He couldn’t eat. It was pretty hard to watch.”

She doesn’t understand why some lawmakers think people like her father are out to cheat the system.

“We don’t feel that veterans, or anybody with mesothelioma, should have any additional hurdles,” she says.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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2 Responses to “New rules sought on asbestos suits”

  1. William Roberts says:

    In response to Bill Lueders commentary on new state laws being sought on asbestos lawsuits, Friday, November 8th, 2013, I would like to offer my personal opinion.

    In 2004, I lost my Father, Colonel Guy R. Roberts to Mesothelioma. He was very ill for many years and suffered a terrible death. Extraordinary amounts of bloody fluid were taken out of his lungs, 2700 milliliters to be exact. A decorated WW2 fighter pilot, he flew 223 combat missions and worked 30 years to provide a clean, safe home environment for his family. After installing Zonolite Attic Insulation in my family home around 1970 and for whatever reason, left two bags of insulation behind. Zonolite was made by specialty chemical maker, WR Grace and mined in Libby, Montana for several years. This “miracle mineral” has killed hundreds in the town of Libby and to this day, remains a superfund site.

    After finding Zonolite in my attic, I retained a law firm in Chicago for a personal injury/wrongful death lawsuit. My claim will be filed against the company bankruptcy trust as soon as it’s established. The big question is when? Packaging copy on the bag clearly states that Zonolite Attic Insulation is non-irritating. This statement was false and misleading and the executives at WR Grace knew it. Internal documents obtained through various sources has helped victims obtain full compensation from the negligence of others.

    I lost my Father and childhood home to the profits of WR Grace. I moved out in 2009 because of all the asbestos in it. I’ve had cancer twice and a tumor on my colon in 1989. I was exposed to asbestos for many years and this may have played a part in my many health concerns.

    Senator Glenn Grothman and state Representative Andre Jacque say a change is needed to prevent plaintiffs from “double dipping”- seeking additional money from asbestos trusts after getting everything they can from existing manufacturers. I don’t agree with these “efforts” at creating loopholes for corporations who knowingly sold harmful materials that have killed many Americans.

    WR Grace has been in chapter 11/bankruptcy protection since 2001. This is 13 years with no end in sight. I have watched their stock price go from $20 a share to the current price of $95 with a forecast of $105 according to Jim Cramer on MSNBC. The company recently purchased a division of Dow chemical for $500 million dollars. These trusts pay pennies on the dollar and continue to get filthy rich as plaintiffs like myself, have not seen a dime. I have every moral and divine right to seek fair compensation from them. I hope my comments are of value.

    William Roberts

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  1. [...] liability to their neighbors just by complying with applicable rules. The bill, a departure from other GOP bills that make it harder for people to sue, is opposed by 21 of the two dozen lobby groups to weigh in. [...]


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