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Sides may reach deal to end asbestos suits

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 24, 2003

Companies, insurers, unions and Democratic and Republican senators are nearing an agreement in principle to end all asbestos lawsuits and instead pay people with asbestos-related diseases from a national, privately financed trust, participants on all sides of the talks said, according to the New York Times.

The trust, which would have to be approved by Congress and President Bush, would pay more than $100-billion to hundreds of thousands of asbestos victims during the next 30 years. It would stop the flood of asbestos lawsuits, 200,000 in the last two years alone, that have strained businesses and the court system.

It would be the second-largest lawsuit settlement ever, exceeded only by tobacco companies' agreement in 1998 to pay states $246-billion for their Medicaid spending on victims of cigarette smoking.

An asbestos trust fund would not allow people to opt out and sue instead. All new and existing claims would be settled through the trust, which would largely or entirely be financed by businesses and insurers, people involved in the negotiations said.

Victims would receive payments more quickly, while businesses would avoid the risk of huge verdicts.

Many details of the trust remain to be worked out, including the exact size of payments to victims, and the negotiations could still stall.

Physics of shuttle disaster are simple, panel told

HOUSTON -- Space program pioneers told Columbia investigators Wednesday that shuttle wings were never designed to be struck by anything and suggested NASA should have taken the potentially catastrophic problem much more seriously.

"Neither one of these accidents that we've had on shuttle require Ph.Ds in physics to understand," said Robert Thompson, who led the shuttle program during the 1970s and helped design the spacecraft.

"Erosion rates on an O-ring, when there should be no erosion, is an obvious thing," he said, referring to the Challenger accident.

Thompson then turned to Columbia, which investigators believe was likely damaged by a piece of insulating foam that came off the fuel tank during liftoff.

"Kinetic energy of a 21/2 or 3-pound hunk of foam when it's traveling 700 feet per second, that's high school physics," he said.

Also Wednesday, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore confirmed reports that he will leave NASA when the investigation is complete.

Lawyer confirms rape case against cadets

DENVER -- Military prosecutors are pursuing charges against two Air Force Academy cadets who allegedly raped a freshman female cadet in a dorm room last fall, the woman's lawyer said Wednesday.

The cadet from Pennsylvania reported the alleged attack immediately after it occurred in October and underwent a medical examination, lawyer Steve Werner said. He said she later was disciplined for fraternizing with older cadets and for drinking.

Air Force Academy spokeswoman Pam Ancker confirmed that an Article 32 hearing was scheduled May 14, but she declined to discuss the case.

Article 32 hearings are held to determine if there is enough evidence to conduct a court-martial.

Elsewhere ...

BUSH VISITS OHIO: President Bush will be in Canton, Ohio, today in an attempt to persuade Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, to back Bush's plan for $550-billion in tax cuts. Voinovich is one of two senators leading the effort to halve the tax cut to $350-billion. Voinovich has refused to support larger tax reductions unless they are offset by spending cuts.

CAPITOL REOPENED: Public tours of the U.S. Capitol will resume Friday. All tours, except those led by congressional staff members, were shut down March 20.

STORM WEAKENS: Tropical Storm Ana's center was becoming less organized, a sign that it was losing strength, hurricane specialist Richard Pasch said. At 4 p.m. EDT, Ana was moving east-northeast at 18 mph and had maximum sustained winds of about 40 mph. It was centered 1,170 miles west-southwest of the western Azores and threatened only ships.

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