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Victims of asbestos exposure would have to meet new requirements in order to receive compensation for their illness and some contend that could mean patients die before they're paid under a bill that cleared a House committee Wednesday.
Thomas Florence told the House panel that he has been diagnosed with and will die from mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer, caused by asbestos exposure and has a lawsuit pending seeking compensation for his illness, but if HB403 passes he "will not live to see my day in court."
The companies that caused his disease, he said, "will view me in a coffin rather than facing me at trial."
Sponsored by Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, HB403 seeks to end a practice he referred to as "double-dipping," where plaintiffs in asbestos lawsuits can go to court and be awarded damages, then file claims against one of the dozens of trusts established by bankrupt companies to award damages to asbestos victims.
The two awards are not coordinated, Wilson said, and the result is that the trusts are being depleted by unscrupulous lawyers. Nationally there are about 60 such trusts holding nearly $37 billion.
"This bill is designed to ensure those who have asbestos exposure or had it in the past get the compensation they deserve," Wilson said.
Wilson's legislation is lifted from model language promoted by the business-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Phil Goldberg, representing the U.S. Chamber, said attorneys in other states have lied and withheld information from the courts, filed contradictory claims in the courts and the trusts and abused the system.
"[This bill] promotes honesty in litigation and allows a jury to be fully informed about the plaintiffs' exposure so they can properly apportion fault," Goldberg said.
Attorney Rick Nemeroff, who represents asbestos victims, said there is no evidence that Utah lawyers have gamed the system and called it "an out-of-state legislative attack on our system that works just fine."
The new disclosure requirements in the bill and the potential for defendants to delay proceedings means some victims may never benefit from the compensation for their illnesses.
Wilson said six states have passed similar legislation and a study in one of them Ohio found that the new requirements actually have made the compensation process faster.
The House Business and Labor Committee voted 7-3 to send Wilson's bill to the full House, even though the sponsor acknowledged more work may be needed to refine the bill. He agreed to discuss concerns with the interested parties.