COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio Senate committee advanced a bill Tuesday aimed at curbing duplicate lawsuits over on-the-job asbestos exposure in a state with one of the largest backlogs of such cases in the nation.
The bill cleared the committee along mostly party lines, and the full Senate could vote on the measure Wednesday.
The House in January approved the bill, which preserves victims' rights to sue when harmed by the powdery white carcinogen and doesn't cap the damage awards they can receive.
The legislation would require workers to divulge all asbestos claims filed by them or on their behalf or face perjury charges.
Proponents say it would prevent double-dipping by victims, who have two separate ways of pursuing damages: trusts set up by sometimes bankrupted companies to compensate victims or lawsuits against active businesses.
But opponents say the bill impedes legitimate claims. They say its passage would make Ohio the first state in the country to impose such claims restrictions. Similar legislation has been introduced in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas and West Virginia and in the U.S. House and Senate.
Asbestos claims are accelerating nationwide, and more than 8,500 U.S. companies in sectors representing 85 percent of the U.S. economy are defending asbestos-related claims, according to legislative analysts. The U.S. Supreme Court has labeled it a crisis.
"The problem with the two tracks is that there is a lack of full transparency between them," says a fact sheet by proponents led by the business-backed Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice. "In a lawsuit, claimants may tell the court about claims already made on trusts. However, they are not obligated to tell the court if they plan future claims to trusts. As a result, the system is rampant with inconsistent claims, fraud and 'double-dipping' from the trust accounts, and from lawsuit awards."
Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, had more than 5,700 pending cases on its special asbestos docket at the end of September, according to information from the Ohio Supreme Court. That places the county among America's busiest asbestos dockets. Cases are also pending in more than 70 of Ohio's 88 counties.
A coalition representing asbestos cancer victims says the bill protects corporations at the expense of victims. The group points out that Ohio has the eighth highest rate of death in the U.S. from the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma — at least 1,356 people since 1999, and potentially many times that number of actual victims.
"This bill is designed to give a handout to the asbestos industry while robbing dying cancer victims of their constitutional rights," said Anthony Gallucci, president of the Asbestos Victims Coalition. "The asbestos industry should be held accountable for the thousands of deaths and injuries."
Bob Groff of Avon and his granddaughter Sarah Groff Edelman both were diagnosed with mesothelioma after years of performing brake work in Groff's garage. Groff said his granddaughter, diagnosed at 21, survived through numerous painful surgeries.
"We need Gov. (John) Kasich and Ohio's senators to stand up to the corporations that have killed thousands of our neighbors and brought pain and misery to their families," Groff said in a coalition statement. "Too many Ohio workers have died. Our elected officials should not limit justice."
The bill stems from model legislation developed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which has drawn attention for the entree it has recently gained at statehouses through efforts including opulent, corporate-backed conferences not always subject to normal disclosure rules.