State Politics

New requirements for asbestos victims who sue companies pass NC House panel

Sen. Michael Lee
Sen. Michael Lee

A bill that would change requirements for asbestos lawsuits divided a House committee Tuesday over concerns that it would make it harder for people with cancer to sue.

Senate Bill 470 passed the House Judiciary II Committee in a 6-4 vote, with Democrats opposing the measure.

It would require people who are suing over exposure to asbestos to research trust funds for asbestos manufacturers that declared bankruptcy, file claims through the funds and disclose those claims in their lawsuit. It would also allow courts to delay payouts while the person suing goes through the process with trust funds.

Sen. Michael Lee, a Wilmington Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said that the measure addresses concerns that some asbestos victims may be getting paid by the companies responsible for asbestos exposure as well as through the trust funds – depleting the money available in the trust funds.

“It’s important to realize that this pot of money is there for the plaintiffs that don’t know they have the diseases yet,” he said. “That money is not going to be there because it’s not unlimited money in that bank trust.”

But Janet Ward-Black, a Greensboro attorney who specializes in asbestos lawsuits, spoke out against the bill. She said the new requirements will result in lengthy delays for asbestos-exposure victims seeking payments as they suffer from mesothelioma and other diseases.

“There is not a single case in North Carolina that said that a dying man or dying woman got more than they deserved,” she said.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, got support to strip out a provision in the bill that would have reduced payouts based on the amount “reasonably expected” to be paid by a bankruptcy trust fund.

“This seems to be the most problematic part of this bill, and it seems to be really unfair,” she said. “I don’t see how you can calculate a reasonable expectation.”

Mark Behrens of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, who has written a report on what he calls “asbestos litigation abuse,” defended the bill at Tuesday’s hearing.

“Under this bill, plaintiffs will receive 100 percent of their damages, and wrongdoers will be held fully accountable,” he said. “This is not in any way, shape or form a wrongdoers protection act. People would no longer get paid twice for the exact same injury.”

The bill now heads to the House floor. It had already passed the Senate in a 43-5 vote last month, but the Senate would need to vote again on the House’s changes.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter