COLUMBUS — Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign a controversial bill that critics argue will make it more difficult for victims to sue the corporations that made asbestos-related products or exposed them to the cancer-causing fibers.
In a nearly party-line vote, the Republican-controlled House voted 56-34 Tuesday to approve Senate changes to House Bill 380 and forward it to the governor’s desk. The measure, which cleared the Senate last week, has been pushed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Ohio would be the first state to enact such a law.
“We’ve taken a group of people who have been suffering from horrible, terrible disease, and then we say your process to get justice is now complicated and burdened by nothing but a series of procedural hurdles…” Rep. Mark Okey (D., Carrollton) said.
“There’s nothing in the Senate amendments that really improves this bill,” he said. “Its intent is clear. We’re going to make it very hard for those victims of asbestos exposure to gain any kind of monetary award.”
Most manufacturers of asbestos-related products have long since sought federal bankruptcy protection, creating trusts in the process against which victims can make claims. The bill primarily aims to help corporations that avoided bankruptcy and are battling lawsuits on a case-by-case basis.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati), would require those who file asbestos lawsuits to cite all other entities they’ve sued, including the bankruptcy trusts, and spell out the evidence used in those cases. A corporate defendant in an asbestos lawsuit could ask a judge to delay the start of a trial if it has reason to believe the plaintiff has withheld information on another lawsuit or failed to sue someone he should have.
Such information could affect decisions by judges and juries when it comes to apportioning blame for a victim’s illness as well as the monetary award attached to that blame.
“As Ohio goes, so goes the nation, and we hope this will result in a domino effect with other states passing legislation to ensure that the tort and trust systems work together fairly to compensate asbestos victims,” said Lisa A. Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.
“This bill will go a long way toward eliminating fraud in asbestos litigation, discourage double-dipping by plaintiffs’ lawyers, and ensure that companies and bankruptcy trusts both pay their fair share of recoveries to claimants,” she said. “It will also help Ohio manufacturing companies and protect jobs by ensuring that companies are not bankrupted by fraudulent claims.”
The bill is the latest to restrict asbestos-related lawsuits in Ohio. In 2004, the state enacted a groundbreaking law that required plaintiffs in asbestos-related lawsuits to demonstrate that they’ve suffered substantial impairment of their health. An X-ray showing simple changes to their lungs no longer would be sufficient.
That resulted in the dismissal of about 30,000 of roughly 40,000 asbestos cases pending in Ohio courts at that time.
Advocates for asbestos victims had hoped the governor would veto the bill, but Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols confirmed Tuesday that he would sign it into law.
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