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Nothing frivolous

Editorial by the Anniston Star, Anniston, Alabama, March 28, 2005

Asbestos litigation. Don’t even think about it. The Bush administration is on the job, conjuring up the images they wish to have pop into citizens’ heads at the mere mention of the words. Greedy lawyers. A broken courts system. Undeserving fakers. Failing business leading to unemployment.

Blah, blah, blah. These are focus-group tested phrases intended to scare folks and confuse the issue.

Asbestos litigation is not as complicated as sellers of “tort reform” claim. Nor are the bad guys as hard to distinguish from the good ones.

Forget all the distractions. At its core, asbestos lawsuits are about people harmed, quite often lethally, by the negligent actions of institutions and their managers.

Ragland’s Cement Asbestos Products Co., later renamed Capco Pipe Co. Inc., presents us with a fine example. The Star’s Jessica Centers and Matthew Korade began a four-part series examining the case in Sunday’s newspaper.

Handling asbestos poses a health risk, something that researchers realized by the 1930s and became sure of as the 20th century progressed. By 1960, the case was closed — asbestos can cause cancer.

Capco moved to St. Clair County in the mid-1960s. Workers there say the consequences of handling asbestos daily were never explained to them. They breathed in the toxic stuff and were often coated in it after a day’s work. They were offered little or no protective gear.

It’s safe to say that the full implications of handling the cancer-causing material did not become clear until workers and ex-workers started getting sick. After years of breathing this lethal dust, Capco employees paid a dear price that was exacted in coughing, shortness of breath, scarred lungs and often cancer leading to death. The toll in tiny Ragland is staggering.

See, nothing complicated for a court to consider. Was the company negligent in warning workers of potential dangers? Was it negligent in not providing adequate safety devices? If so, did workers suffer and die because of said carelessness? How much should those made sick or the families of those made sick receive in compensation?

It’s as clear as Julia Golden’s suffering. The Ragland woman lost a husband and several other family members to horrible asbestos-related diseases. All had worked for Capco.

In this context, President Bush’s use of the word “frivolous” when describing asbestos litigation is callous, if not downright offensive.

Perhaps the president is blinded by partisanship in this case. He sees an attractive target in attorneys who file lawsuits on behalf of asbestos claimants. After all, those lawyers don’t contribute to his campaign or those of his Republican allies. Conversely, his corporate contributors would love to see this mountain of potential litigation put away.

The comments of the president and many of his fellow Republicans provide the tipoff.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, recently warned, “a handful of personal injury lawyers are running away with billions of dollars.”

A few days earlier, Bush said, “many times, the lawyers get the money and the people don’t.”

Former congressman Dick Armey writes, “hundreds of firms face the imminent threat of bankruptcy at the hands of a predatory trial bar.”

Is a pattern emerging?

But while they and others are using trial lawyers as a punching bag, who is holding to account companies whose actions resulted in illness and death? The sick, dying and grieving in Ragland deserve an answer

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