[Homestead] Pretty names for ugly, ugly, ugly legislation---y0o've just lost more rights
tvoivozd at infionline.net
Thu Feb 17 07:32:11 EST 2005
FEBRUARY 15, 2005, AND THEREAFTER
AUSTIN, Texas -- Sometimes the ironic timing of events in our public
life is so striking as to cause one to wonder if the Great Scriptwriter
in the Sky isn't trying to make a point. Thus, the word that the U.S.
Senate voted for tort deform last week came just a few days after the
news that seven executives of W.R. Grace and Co. were indicted on
criminal charges for knowingly putting their workers and the public in
danger by exposing them to asbestos ore.
Hundreds of miners, their family members and townsfolk in Libby, Mont.,
have died, and at least 1,200 more are sick from breathing the air
polluted by the mine. Since the ore was shipped all over the country and
was used as insulation in millions of homes, the total health effects
are incalculable. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer deserves credit for
bringing Grace to public attention with a series back in 1999.
The executives and the company were indicted on 10 counts of conspiracy,
knowing endangerment, obstruction of justice and wire fraud.
W.R. Grace & Co. "categorically denies any criminal wrongdoing," said a
The indictments and the P-I's series were based on tens of thousands of
internal communications among the top health, marketing and legal
managers at Grace about how to conceal the danger of asbestos in both
the ore from the Libby mine and the products that were made from it.
Their memos include discussion of how to keep investigators from
studying the health of the miners, how to keep safety warnings off their
products and how to hide the hazards of working with asbestos ore.
A lawyer with a Montana firm that has been trying to help families of
the dead and dying for years said: "The prosecution cannot eliminate the
death and disease in Libby. But there is comfort in the hope that
criminal convictions will say to corporate America: Managers will be
held criminally accountable if they lie and watch workers die."
According to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, W.R. Grace filed
for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001 because of a "sharply increasing
number of asbestos claims." However, in 2002, the Justice Department
intervened in a bankruptcy proceeding for the first time ever, alleging
that before Grace asked for Chapter 11, it concealed money in new
companies it bought. The Justice Department said it was a "fraudulent
transfer" of money to protect itself from civil suits.
Just before the bankruptcy trial was to begin, Grace returned almost $1
billion to the bankruptcy court. The company currently has annual sales
of about $2 billion, more than 6,000 employees and operations in nearly
On Feb. 2, President Bush again referred to "frivolous asbestos claims."
Against this timely reminder of what the tort system is designed to
deter or punish, the Senate voted for the "Class Action Fairness Act"
(love those cute names they keep giving rotten bills) 72 to 26. There is
no "flood of frivolous lawsuits" -- in fact, tort claims are declining
and only 2 percent of injured people ever sue for compensation to begin
Public Citizen did a study showing that corporations themselves file
four times as many lawsuits as do individuals, and they are penalized
much more often by judges for pursuing frivolous litigation.
"Corporations think America is too litigious only when they are on the
receiving end of a lawsuit," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public
Citizen. "But when they feel aggrieved, businesses are far more likely
to take their beef to court than are consumers."
The administration came up with a weird fix for this nonexistent problem
(so reminiscent of nonexistent WMDs, the "crisis" in Social Security and
other non-problems): It severely limited the right of individuals to
file class-action suits against corporations by moving such cases from
state courts to federal courts.
If the aggregate claim is over $5 million or the defendants and the
plaintiffs are in separate states, the suit goes into the federal system
-- and that definition pretty well encompasses all class-action suits.
And federal judges are less likely to certify a group of aggrieved
consumers as "a class" because such cases often involve conflicting
state laws -- victims of a bad product can live in any state, and the
company that made the product is often in another state.
On top of that, in case you haven't talked to any federal judges lately,
the whole federal system is under-funded and overburdened now. The net
effect is less accountability for corporations that violate health,
safety, consumer and civil rights, and environmental laws. Happy Enron,
WorldCom, Tyco and W.R. Grace to all.
This abominable bill was also much-sought by Republicans for nasty
political reasons, which makes their rhetoric about justice all the more
nauseating. It's a big win for the insurance industry and for big
business, both heavy donors to Republicans. It also strips potential
cases from trial lawyers, a group notoriously given to supporting the
Democrats. How clever of Karl Rove.
Frankly, I think both the trial lawyers and big business can take care
of themselves -- it's the rest of us I worry about.
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