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ABA urges limits on asbestos lawsuits

©Associated Press
February 12, 2003

SEATTLE -- The American Bar Association urged Congress on Tuesday to restrict who can sue over exposure to cancer-causing asbestos, a stand that could cut the business of its own members.

The position aligned the country's largest lawyers association with business and insurance groups.

But ABA leaders argued that lawyers should accept blame for a crisis in courts overwhelmed with 600,000 asbestos claims, as well as the bankruptcies of dozens of companies that were sued.

"This is not tort reform, it's scandal reform," said Terrence Lavin, a Chicago plaintiffs' attorney. "I have watched helplessly as some, but not all, members of the asbestos bar have made a mockery of our civil justice system and inflicted financial ruin on corporate America."

Asbestos, a heat-resistant mineral once used in insulation and fireproofing, has been found to cause sometimes deadly health problems. Companies that ran mines and shipyards or used asbestos in products have been sued by ex-workers and consumers.

Mary Alexander, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, argued that the ABA recommendations would close courts to 90 percent of the people who have sued.

"Those who are sick but not dying would be denied," she said in a debate on the final day of the ABA's winter meeting in Seattle.

The ABA did not consider caps on jury awards, supported by some groups. Instead, it tried to differentiate between people who are really sick and those who are not. Now, that is left up to a jury.

The ABA plan sets medical standards for people who have been exposed to asbestos but do not have cancer. Those who do not qualify under the standards could not sue. They could go to court later if their conditions worsen.

As many as 120,000 people have lost their jobs because of lawsuits that have forced more than 60 companies into bankruptcy protection in the past few years, former federal judge Nathaniel Jones said.

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