Texas House passes asbestos legislation

Knight Ridder Tribune Business News
Kriel, Lomi
May 11, 2005

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May 11--AUSTIN -- It will curb a wave of asbestos-related lawsuits but allow the truly sick to still seek redress, said proponents of a measure approved unanimously and without debate by the House late Tuesday.

"The effects of this legislation are going to be felt not just in Texas but all over the nation," said Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, the bill's sponsor.

Nixon and other supporters say under the current system, too many people who have been exposed to asbestos or silica but who aren't ill are filing lawsuits at the expense of the truly sick.

The bill, which the Senate also passed unanimously two weeks ago, is a delicate compromise forged by lawyers and business groups, said Nixon and the Senate bill's author, Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, who also is a practicing physician.

The easy approval was a marked difference from debate on the issue two years ago, which got so contentious that Gov. Rick Perry at one point hopped over a Senate railing to prod members on it.

Nixon admitted he was surprised by the lack of debate, calling it proof that "a lot of people put in a lot of work."

"This is historic," said Dick Weekley, chairman of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, adding that it could provide a model for Congress.

The bill requires those exposed to asbestos meet requirements, such as passing a chest X-ray or pulmonary function test, before they could sue, while providing a loophole for "extraordinary" cases.

Those with pending lawsuits who don't meet the criteria would see their suits put on hold until they become sick enough to proceed. Suits filed after September 2005 could be automatically dismissed, though they could be filed later.

Janek's measure removes the current statute of limitations -- a key provision to obtaining support from plaintiffs' lawyers. People who have been exposed but are not yet sick will not have to rush to sue as they are doing now, Janek said, but could wait until they become truly ill.

Opponents have questioned imposing medical criteria on someone who is already sick and on a disease in which not everyone is affected in the same way. Asbestos-related diseases can lie latent for 40 years.

Texas ranks fifth in the nation for asbestos-related deaths and more lawsuits have been filed here than any other state.

Brian Blevins, a Beaumont attorney who worked on the bill for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, called it the "best worst-case scenario for our clients."

Credit: San Antonio Express-News

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