February 12, 2003 - ABA Backs Limits On Asbestos Suits

At the risk of alienating its trial lawyer members, the American Bar Association voted Tuesday, Feb. 11, to support federal legislation that would set strict medical criteria for asbestos claimants seeking compensation.

With the vote, the ABA is taking the position that plaintiffs would have to develop cancer before they sue.

At the same time, however, the organization wants the statute of limitations on when asbestos plaintiffs can sue to be lifted. That way, those exposed to asbestos but aren't yet sick wouldn't face a limitation on when they could sue if they do develop cancer.

Asbestos litigation has put more than 60 companies in bankruptcy since 2000 and threatens to run a total tab of about $265 billion.

The ABA vote, during its mid-year meeting in Seattle, gives a boost to advocates, including the National Association of Manufacturers, who seek similar congressional legislation to rein in massive asbestos liabilities.

Congress is widely expected to take up asbestos reform legislation this year. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are working on a consensus bill to address asbestos litigation.

"These two components medical criteria and tolling the statute of limitations are essential to effective congressional legislation," Michael Baroody, executive vice-president of the National Association of Manufacturers and chairman of The Asbestos Alliance Steering Committee, said in a statement after the ABA vote.

Meanwhile, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) said in a statement that the ABA's plan would wipe out the legal rights of most asbestos victims because it "tramples on justice and allows corporate wrongdoers to evade accountability."

"Those who are sick, but not dying, would be denied," ATLA President Mary E. Alexander said in remarks prepared for the ABA meeting. "This cannot and should not be the official policy of the American Bar Association or of any other group dedicated to preserving the right to trial by jury."

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