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Inside the Senate’s fight to change the asbestos claims process

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Changes to how asbestos claims are handled isn’t a new topic for the General Assembly, but it’s one that hit the floor early this year. 

A month into the 2020 legislative session, senators have been debating and tweaking SB 575, already on its eighth version. And if previous bills that were similar in nature are any indication, it will be a long road for this effort to change civil action procedures for asbestos exposure as well.  

“I am committed to creating a process that leads to compensation getting to victims sooner rather than later,” Sen. Bill Eigel, the bill’s sponsor, told The Missouri Times. “I’m committed to ensuring that nothing in the bill will extend the tort process, and finally, I’m committed to ensuring that as a result of requiring the trust claims up front, we’re going to have the transparency for juries that has been lacking in the past. All those combined will eliminate the need for all the games that have to be played.” 

Thousands of people die from illnesses related to asbestos exposure— such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other cancers — each year, making it one of the most prominent causes of work-related injuries and deaths. And exposure is not confined to just one industry; it’s found among veterans, plumbers, and construction workers, to name a few.  

Those on both sides of the debate say they want a faster process for victims to be compensated — albeit, they’re at loggerheads over how to achieve that. Here’s a look at the legislation and the argument within the General Assembly. 

A look at the bill 

Among other things, SB 575 would require a victim to file claims with all available trusts,  providing proof within 45 days of filing for civil action. He or she would also need to provide the status of those claims. In turn, defendants would be able to file a motion requesting a claimant file additional trust claims. 

Additionally, it would make all trust claim materials and governance documents admissible as evidence. A court could impose sanctions if a claimant or counsel failed to comply with the law as laid out in the bill. 

What’s the argument for? 

Proponents of the bill say “at the end of the day,” it comes down to transparency and disclosure. 

“Right now, plaintiffs and defendants have to play a legal game of maneuvering to ensure that the defendant’s rights to transparency are protected, and from a victim’s perspective, they [shouldn’t] have to surrender long term aid and benefits for their families in exchange for the realization of compensation earlier in the process,” Eigel said. 

“We’ve been very careful about making sure that every item in the bill specifically does not create a longer process. Part of the reason the process to get compensation was so long before is that claims made against asbestos trusts were typically coming at the end of the process, after tort action, because of a problem with the offsets,” Eigel continued. “We eliminated that type of offset imbalance in the bill.”

Attorney Rich AuBuchon said he’s optimistic by the fact the bill has already been heard on the Senate floor. But he said a “misconception” with the bill is that it would “delay justice” for victims.”

“Frankly, I believe the delay is all in the hands of those who are running the case,” he said.

What’s the argument against?

Minority Floor Leader Gina Walsh has been a tenacious barricade to similar legislation in the past. And for Walsh, a transformational leader in Missour’s labor movement, it’s personal. 

In her industry, Walsh has known several people who have gotten ill or died from asbestos exposure. She also tells the story of a friend who spent just one summer helping tear shingles from a roof. He was exposed to asbestos and died at 43 years old from mesothelioma.

“It’s an emotional issue for me. When you work with people and you see them die … You spend a lot of time at work. You spend more time at work, often times, than you do with your own family,” Walsh said. “You form relationships with these people.” 

One of Walsh’s biggest complaints with the bill is that it “puts a lot of the burden of proof” on victims — especially when time is of the essence, she said. And relying on trusts is problematic for victims, especially given the propensity for them to run out of money.

“It’s hard now under current law. … They have to jump through hoops now. This isn’t a slam dunk or an easy process, and it’s not a pile of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Walsh said. “They’re just making it a lot harder on victims.”

This is Walsh’s final year in the state Senate, but she’s hopeful someone will carry on her torch to block this type of legislation when she’s gone. 

As for the time she has left in the Senate, Walsh said: “I’m not sitting down on this.”