Keep Our Families Safe

Special Treatment for Corporations?

Stephanie Foster died two years ago at age 42 of a devastating cancer – mesothelioma – that is caused only by breathing asbestos fibers.  She was exposed to the deadly mineral as a toddler by hugging her father when he came home from his job as a lathe operator.

Forty years ago, Stephanie’s father didn’t know he carried asbestos on his work clothes.  Stephanie didn’t learn she was sick with an asbestos-caused cancer until 1999.  That’s because it can take decades for symptoms of asbestos disease to appear, even though lung damage begins when the fibers are first inhaled.

After her cancer was diagnosed, Stephanie and her family went to court to hold the company that poisoned her accountable.  The company said it was innocent, claiming it never used asbestos in its products.  But lawyers for the Foster family proved that was a lie and the judge threw out the false evidence.

Unfortunately, lawyers who represent asbestos victims say this type of corporate cover-up is nothing new.  They say the asbestos industry knew its product was deadly at least by the mid-1930s, but hid that fact for decades.  In the meantime, millions of innocent Americans were poisoned.

The information began to leak out in the 1970s, as more people became sick with cancer and other lung diseases.  Because the asbestos industry chose to fight legitimate claims, workers were forced to go to court to get their medical bills paid.  Their trial lawyers uncovered buried company documents.

Now these same companies and their insurers are lobbying Congress to change the law on asbestos lawsuits.  They say they want to fix a system that unfairly forces innocent companies to compensate people who aren’t really sick or injured.

The asbestos lobby says people whose asbestos-related disease appears only on X-rays aren’t sick.  But victims’ groups say that’s like saying people with HIV aren’t sick because their disease can be detected only by a blood test.  And they note that insurance companies have no trouble saying that supposedly “not sick” asbestos victims are “too sick” to buy life insurance.

The asbestos lobby calls changing the legal system tort “reform.”  Victims’ groups and their lawyers argue that the industry plan isn’t really  reform – it’s special treatment for corporate wrongdoers.  If Congress passes this tort “reform,” they say, most asbestos lawsuits would be eliminated and innocent victims would get nothing – no help with medical bills and no compensation for their injuries.  That would give guilty companies a financial windfall amounting to millions or even billions in profits.     

The asbestos lobby also says claims by people who aren’t sick are ruining innocent companies.  But lawyers who represent asbestos victims say there’s evidence that the companies are using the bankruptcy laws to limit their financial obligation to the people they harmed.

Unlike when a family goes bankrupt, the lawyers say these huge corporations aren’t literally out of money.  Most return to normal business operations – free of claims against them – in a few years.  Some of the biggest asbestos companies that went bankrupt have made millions in profits in recent years.

In America, no one is supposed to be above the law.  So asbestos victims are asking, if companies that poisoned millions are allowed to change the rules on asbestos, will corporate wrongdoers try the same tactic with other deadly products in the future?