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Missouri House bill would change process for asbestos lawsuits

People who have been exposed to asbestos are sometimes reminded about their exposure years or decades later when they are diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused exclusively by asbestos. When victims seek compensation for asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis, it is common for them to seek compensation from every party that could be responsible for their illness. That often includes filing claims with some or all of the many trusts set up to compensate victims, and filing a lawsuit against the still-viable manufacturers and suppliers of the asbestos-containing products to which they were exposed.

For a number of reasons, many asbestos compensation lawsuits are filed in Missouri. Recently, the Missouri House of Representatives passed a bill intended to reform (restrict) the process for filing these lawsuits in Missouri.

"It is designed to keep us from being called the 'sue-me state' instead of the Show-me State," said the bill's sponsor.

Unfortunately, a bipartisan group of critics said the bill will have the effect of hindering people's access to compensation for mesothelioma and other asbestos-caused illnesses.

Usually all potentially responsible and viable manufacturers, suppliers and other companies are named in a single complaint (lawsuit). However, there are situations in which doing so is not possible or appropriate. The Missouri House bill would require it.

According to bill proponents, one of the purposes of the bills is to stop so-called "double dipping," which means suing one company and then suing another and receiving compensation from both. "Double dipping" is also something bill proponents say happens when claims with trusts are delayed from being filed until such time as the lawsuit process is finished. Either situation could theoretically result in a plaintiff being overcompensated.

In reality, many victims are undercompensated or not compensated at all. Many factors, including the passage of time, make identifying the responsible parties problematic. Many of the companies identified may have filed bankruptcy or no longer be in business. The existing claims process (for formely bankrupt companies with established trust) can be complex and time-consuming, and each trust has its own trust distribution procedures with multiple criteria that must be met in order to qualify for compensation. Many mesothelioma or lung cancer victims die before they get their "day in court."

One Republican representative pointed to the case of firefighters, who can be exposed to asbestos at virtually any home built before 1978. He noted that a firefighter would be challenged to identify every possible source of asbestos exposure.

"Are you here to protect the companies," asked another member, "or are you here to protect those people?"

The bill (HB 1645) passed the Missouri House and is now headed to the Senate. It is similar to legislation passed in Tennessee over the past several years, which is now found collectively in Tennessee Code Annotated sections 29-34-501, et seq., 29-34-601, et seq., and 29-34-701, et seq.

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