Let's Make An Asbestos Deal, Sen. Specter Pleads

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By Arthur D. Postal, Washington Bureau Chief

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NU Online News Service, Jan. 11, 3:24 p.m. EST,Washington?The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committeeimplored stakeholders in the long-running asbestos claim litigationissue to come together quickly on legislation that brings closureto everyone.[@@]

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"This may well be the last, best chance to deal with this issuein the foreseeable future," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said duringa three-hour hearing.

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Sen. Specter, trying again to push the interestedparties?including insurers, defendant companies, organized laborand plaintiffs?to work out their differences, said he hopes to havea bill introduced in the Senate by early February.

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The scope of Sen. Specter's task was described by CraigBerrington, senior vice president and general counsel of theAmerican Insurance Association, which testified on behalf of theindustry. Insurers are wary of proposed solutions that essentiallyare "designed to fail," Mr. Berrington said.

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Mr. Berrington also articulated the industry's newly-disclosedposition that the trust fund concept for injured workers, embracedby Sen. Specter and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the rankingminority member of the panel, won't work.

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"The last thing that a national trust fund should do is to allowasbestos litigation to continue after the bill is signed into law,or be constructed in a way that ever allows a return to the samelitigation system that has created the problem in the first place,"Mr. Berrington testified.

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He added, "AIA could only support a trust fund construct if thatfund became the exclusive remedy for all asbestos claims. Withoutincluding all claims, there is no finality, and the way some of themedical criteria and awards structure are constructed, insurers areconcerned that a fund is ?made to fail.'"

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Mr. Specter also announced support for the first time for the$140 billion fund figure that Sens. William Frist, R-Tenn., and TomDaschle, D-S.D., in effect agreed upon last fall during on-again,off-again talks. Mr. Daschle was later defeated for reelection. Mr.Specter said at the hearing that the previous agreement on $140billion "makes that figure entitled to weight."

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John Engler, former Michigan governor and now president of theNational Association of Manufacturers, supported during histestimony the $140 billion trust fund cap.

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Mr. Engler said the bill should also "completely shut down thebroken asbestos tort system," supporting the insurance industry'sargument that the current draft of Mr. Specter's legislation raisedthe potential for allowing some asbestos claims to wind up back inthe courts.

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Mr. Engler also raised an issue of concern to insurers?one firstraised in 2003?that the draft bill would allow some asbestos claimsto be re-litigated as claims for injury from silica.

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"We believe that the bill must contain stronger provisions tolock the back door so trial lawyers don't just convert tens ofthousands of unimpaired asbestos claims into silica claims," Mr.Engler said.

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