This week, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor took up legislation--Senate Bill 13 and its companion, Assembly Bill 19--intended to limit the rights of victims to pursue legal action against personal trusts, such as lawsuits related to asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring minerals that are resistant to heat and many chemicals, and do not conduct electricity. As a result, asbestos had previously been used as an insulating material, until it was discovered to have negative health effects. Asbestos was used to insulate factories, schools, homes, and ships, and to make automobile brake and clutch parts, roofing shingles, ceiling and floor tiles, cement, textiles, and hundreds of other products. Therefore, war veterans and workers in the manufacturing, mining, or construction industries are particularly at risk of overexposure to potentially deadly asbestos.
Workers can be exposed to asbestos mainly by inhaling fibers in the air they breathe. This may occur during mining and processing asbestos, making asbestos-containing products, or installing asbestos insulation. The inhalation of asbestos fibers by workers can cause serious diseases and scarring of the lungs and other organs that may not appear until years after the exposure has occurred. Mesothelioma and lung cancer are two of the more severe lung problems that can result in overexposure to asbestos.
During the public hearing on these bills, veterans groups, like the Wisconsin VFW and the Wisconsin Military of the Purple Heart, publicly expressed great concerns over two bills. According to the Wisconsin Asbestos Victims Network, Asbestos kills at least 10,000 Americans every year, and Wisconsin has the 14th highest rate of asbestos deaths in the nation. Tragically, while military veterans represent 8% of the nation's population, they comprise an astonishing 30% of all known mesothelioma deaths that have occurred in this country.
Further, military.com cites that virtually every ship commissioned by the United States Navy between 1930 and about 1970 contained several tons of asbestos insulation in the engine room, along the pipes, and in the walls and doors. The sailors that manned these ships and the men who repaired them were prime candidates for asbestos exposure. While asbestos products were discontinued by about 1980, active military members are still affected by asbestos as hundreds of military installations were left with asbestos in the flooring, ceiling tiles, wall insulation, building foundations, and military vehicles.
In the years since this dangerous substance was discovered to have cancer causing properties, manufacturing and mining companies have compiled billion dollar trusts to compensate victims for their illnesses as a stipulation of filing for bankruptcy. These bills could limit victims' rights to pursue a personal injury case against these trusts. The restrictive measures in this bill will adversely impact all personal injury cases, and will especially hinder asbestos litigation.
Senate Bill 13 and Assembly Bill 19 include provisions to dictate strict discovery and scheduling requirements for certain types of lawsuits. Most troubling, the bills mandate that a plaintiff who files a lawsuit must disclose, within 30 days after he or she files the action, whether he or she has filed or anticipates filing a claim against a personal injury trust.
The language in these bills are just another attempt to limit the legal rights of victims. Imposing a 30-day time limit to pursue a tort claim on a victim of cancer or other severe illness is both unfair and unjust. Additionally, requiring that plaintiffs present all their documents, records, and trial or discovery materials when the case commences is contrary to current legal procedure for lawsuits and will have a detrimental effect on an otherwise legitimate case.
Ensuring victims' rights is vital to ensure that justice prevails in our legal system and should not be minimized in order to better serve special interests. Therefore, I will not support either of these bills should one of them reach the Senate floor for a vote. Assembly Bill 19 has passed the full Assembly and was voted out of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor along party lines, so it could be scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor at any point. Senate Bill 13 also passed in the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor along party lines. It too can be scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor, but would also have to pass in the Assembly in order to be signed into law.
Click here to view a copy of Assembly Bill 19 and its companion.