North Carolina lawmakers are dipping into federal issues of civil law to help national stakeholders gain momentum in delaying asbestos cancer victims from getting recovery funds.
Members of the House II Judiciary Committee voted 6-4 along party lines to advance Senate Bill 470, which would require plaintiffs in asbestos claims to tell information about bankruptcy trust claims in personal injury actions, including the amount of monies awarded “or reasonably expected to be awarded.”
There was about an hour of debate, which mostly consisted of lawmakers asking questions of Greensboro attorney Janet Ward Black, an opponent of the bill, and Raleigh attorney Kirk Warner and D.C. attorney Mark Behrens from the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, both proponents of the bill.
Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) carried the bill and also tried to answer some questions. He told committee members that the bill received broad bipartisan support in the Senate and that it promotes transparency on behalf of asbestos victims to the court.
Black said the law is a paper tiger — there aren’t any asbestos cases filed in North Carolina state court. By the state passing such a law, it helps the asbestos industry, which is behind the law, gain momentum to get it passed in states where there is pending litigation.
“They want to color in North Carolina on that map,” she said, referencing a map that Lee showed committee members of other states that passed similar laws.
The real end result of the bill, Black said, is to delay dying people from getting the money they are owed for recovery.
“This hurts people who are dying of asbestos disease because it is an effort by companies to complicate the process and delay, delay, delay,” she said.
Cases involving North Carolinians who have asbestos disease are filed in federal court and are very isolated, according to Black. There are about 50 cases currently pending in federal court — an estimate on the high side.
North Carolina is a “contributory negligence” state that does not require companies to pay recovery funds to victims who made a choice not to protect themselves from asbestos and requires a larger burden of plaintiffs to prove wrongdoing.
Warner and Behrens said SB470 would prevent current asbestos victims from robbing future victims of recovery funds, insinuating the current system makes it simpler for double-dipping.
Debate, at times, got very deep into complicated tort law and civil procedure.
The bill was successfully amended by Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), to make it so it wouldn’t affect pending claims, and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), to eliminate Section 2, which requires plaintiffs to provide the amount of consideration paid for a release or covenant not to sue, including any monies awarded or reasonably expected to be rewarded from a bankruptcy trust.
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