The trial lawyers can’t bear the thought that their jackpot of asbestos cash might disappear. Lawyers in Fear

In political circles, it is common knowledge that Democrats at all levels rely on generous financial support from plaintiffs’ lawyers. Indeed, during the last election, the American Association of Trial Lawyers (ATLA) gave more than $2.1 million to Democrats. And contributions to Democrats at all levels from individual members of the plaintiffs’ bar probably totaled more than $100 million.

So when ATLA recently threatened to postpone and curtail its fundraising efforts for Democrats, it sent a clear and powerful signal: ATLA is scared to death.

What has the nation’s leading assemblage of ambulance chasers quaking in their wing tips? It’s the proposal now in the Senate to create a trust fund, paid for by manufacturers and insurers, not taxpayers, to consider and settle asbestos-related claims.

As we’ve argued before, such a fund will ensure swift justice for real asbestos victims and provide certainty for companies now facing an endless number of claims and the infinite payouts that accompany them.

Most important, the asbestos trust fund will remove claims from the courts where plaintiffs’ lawyers have created a cash cow for themselves that yields buckets of money in legal fees. And that’s why the ATLA and its members are now in high freak.

The trial lawyers’ obvious fear, manifested in their highly unusual public threat, ought to send an equally clear signal to Senators who are still pondering whether or not to support the trust fund proposal. ATLA’s threat makes it painfully obvious that the plaintiffs’ bar will resort to even the most drastic measures to preserve the current system and its never-ending gravy train. Of course, that means that more companies, many of which have nothing to do with asbestos, will be driven into bankruptcy, costing thousands of jobs and putting retirees’ pension and 401(k) benefits at risk. Meanwhile, trial lawyers will continue clogging the courts with frivolous ― and sometimes fraudulent ― asbestos claims.

The trial lawyers can’t bear the thought that their jackpot of asbestos cash might disappear, even though the fund will ensure that real victims are compensated fairly and quickly for their illnesses without having to hand over a third or more of their settlement to a lawyer.

To be sure, real problems remain with the asbestos trust fund proposal. For example, the current draft provides that if the fund runs out of cash, claims would be returned to the courts. Some businesses and insurance companies are concerned that the fund is too large.

Some conservatives argue that creating the fund will amount to a massive expansion of government and a federal grab of state judicial authority. And at this point, it is Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee who are holding up the legislation because they are not yet sufficiently comfortable with the trust fund plan.

These Senators ought to take comfort in ATLA’s fear. Surely a proposal that elicits unprecedented public anxiety from the trial lawyers is one that legal reformers can get behind. And those interested in partisan politics ought to consider that with their asbestos cash spigot turned off, ATLA and its members will have less money available to fund their pet political projects.

No matter what the rationale, it’s time for the Senate to fix the remaining problems with the bill and move it forward. Doing nothing simply isn’t an option. Allowing asbestos cases to continue to clog our courts denies justice to real victims and threatens our economy. Meanwhile, only the lawyers get rich. Of course, that’s exactly what they want.

April 21, 2005
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