WASHINGTON D.C. -- A federal act promoting transparency and access to information relating to asbestos claims recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and has now been introduced in the Senate.
The Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act, also known as H.R. 1927, was introduced into the Senate after it passed the House following a 211-188 vote on Jan. 8. In recent years, previous versions of the FACT Act were passed in the House, but halted in the Senate.
West Virginia Business & Industry Council (BIC), which consists of more than 60 West Virginia trade associations and businesses and represents over 395,000 West Virginia workers in numerous industry categories, has expressed support of the FACT Act.
“Last year during the West Virginia legislative session, the Business & Industry Counsel was supportive of the passage of a number of legal reforms, including the Asbestos Trust Transparency Act here in West Virginia, which is a state version of what passed at the federal level,” Danielle Waltz said. “So when the opportunity came to lend our support to the same protection federally that we were able to provide to the people of West Virginia, we felt it was worthwhile for us to weigh in on that issue.”
Waltz, an attorney who works for Jackson Kelly PLLC, worked with BIC to coordinate its support of the Act.
Because Republicans hold the majority in the Senate, Waltz believes the bill, which is largely backed by Republicans, may have a better chance of making it through the Senate this time around.
“Yes, I think [the majority] will work in its favor,” she said.
The FACT Act was introduced into the House in early 2015, and was combined with another bill in December to form the Fairness in Class Action Litigation and Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2016. The Act seeks to eliminate exploitation of asbestos claims by double-dip – filing claims in civil courts and with bankruptcy trusts.
Accusations of fraudulent claims have risen to the surface in recent years.
In North Carolina, a 2014 ruling by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge George Hodge reduced the amount Garlock Sealing Technologies was required to put in its trust by more than $1 billion less than plaintiffs’ attorneys had requested, because Hodge found that attorneys often delayed submitting claims to bankruptcy trusts when there were pending lawsuits against solvent defendants.
Garlock subsequently issued subpoenas to 29 law firms in an effort to uncover an alleged pattern of racketeering after U.S. District Judge Graham Mullen granted the company the right to do so.
Under the Fact Act, asbestos trusts would be required to file quarterly reports on their public bankruptcy dockets, providing basic information on each demand the trust receives from claimants and the basis for any payout to the claimant. Trusts would also have to provide, upon written request, information regarding demands made to, and payments made by, the trust at the requesting party’s expense.
Due to the disclosure of information regarding asbestos victims’ claims, those who oppose the Act say the provisions would violate privacy and increase the likelihood of identity theft. Opponents also believe the Act will further delay compensation, which often comes too late for asbestos victims who are seriously ill.
“I have not heard those arguments, but from our stand point, this is a process that needs to be transparent. And unfortunately, over the years, it has not been,” Waltz said.
Those who support the legislation say it designed to ensure that the money in the trust funds is reserved for asbestos claimants entitled to compensation by law, and to protect trust funds from fraudulent claims and inflated payouts.
“What the Act does is it allows that transparency to exist on the federal level. It also allows those claimants who are actually sick to be able to recover from those different pools of money, and does not allow the double-dipping that’s been occurring for quite some time,” Waltz said.
An estimated $30 billion has been set aside in trust funds from companies that have filed for bankruptcy.