By CHRIS DICKERSON
CHARLESTON – A key piece of tort reform legislation passed and signed earlier this year now is state law.
Senate Bill 411, also known as the Asbestos Bankruptcy Trust Claims Transparency Act and the Asbestos and Silica Claims Priorities Act, took effect Tuesday, 60 days after being signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
The measure, which was sponsored by Kanawha County Republican Senator Tom Takubo, establishes legal standards and procedures for the handling of certain asbestos and silica claims. Additionally, it creates medical criteria procedures, statute of limitations standards, and requires disclosure of existing and potential asbestos bankruptcy trust claims.
Takubo, who is a pulmonologist, had strong feelings about the bill.
“I am so very pleased that the Legislature and governor have followed my lead to rightly protect and preserve the trusts for those suffering from asbestos disease so that the patients and their families will be finally protected for generations to come,” he said when the bill was signed.
A nationally known asbestos defense attorney heralded the law.
“The West Virginia asbestos bankruptcy trust transparency and medical criteria law will improve West Virginia’s legal climate,” said Mark Behrens, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., office of Shook, Hardy & Bacon. “Trust transparency will promote honesty in trust claiming activity and in civil asbestos litigation.
“The law’s medical criteria for nonmalignant asbestos and silica claims will give priority to deserving claimants by requiring plaintiffs to be sick to sue. The bill had broad bipartisan support, and the Governor deserves credit for signing it into law.”
A statewide legal reform group also praised the signing of the measure.
“We applaud Governor Tomblin for signing into law Senate Bill 411, the Asbestos Bankruptcy Trust Claims Transparency Act,” said Roman Stauffer, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. “This legislation passed the State Senate and House of Delegates with strong bi-partisan support because legislators realized the need to bring transparency into the asbestos claims process.
“Abuse of the asbestos trust claims process is widespread, and this legislation will shed much-needed daylight on how trusts are being run and cut down on widespread fraud in trust claims and litigation. Greed and misrepresentation of facts are rampant in the system, and future legitimate victims of asbestos exposure are losing out to those factors in our present system.
“This legislation was very much needed. We applaud Governor Tomblin, Senate President Bill Cole, and Speaker Tim Armstead for making it a priority.
When the bill was being debated by the Legislature, a statewide group for trial lawyers called the bill unnecessary and said it only will hurt affected residents.
A legal reform group, however, applauded the measure, saying it will bring needed transparency to the process and create medical criteria for asbestos claimants.
Anthony Majestro, who was president of the West Virginia Association for Justice when the bill was signed, said West Virginia’s current case management order for asbestos cases is working well.
“For more than a decade, West Virginia’s asbestos cases have been handled very effectively by our case management order,” Majestro, a Charleston attorney, said. “It was developed by lawyers for both the injured workers and the manufacturers. They worked together to establish a system that would handle these cases fairly, efficiently and protected the interests of all parties involved.
“More importantly, it ensures that very sick people are compensated for their exposure to a deadly product that was kept on the market for decades after its dangers were well known. West Virginia’s case management order is working, and it should be a model for any state that has asbestos claims.
“Dying West Virginians will not be compensated and billion-dollar manufacturers that kept a dangerous product on the market will not be held accountable and get to keep their profits.”