Four [Ohio] Senate Republicans joined all 10 Democrats on Wednesday in opposing a bill that supporters argue would help to level the legal playing field in asbestos lawsuits, and that opponents counter is another attempt to bar the courthouse door to victims of the cancer-causing fibers.
In the end, the bill passed 19-14. It returns to the House for approval of Senate changes and is expected to reach Gov. John Kasich's desk next week before lawmakers draw the two-year legislative session to a close.
House Bill 380, sponsored by Rep. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati), would require someone who files an asbestos claim to list all the other entities they have sued, including federal bankruptcy trusts, and spell out the evidence they used in those cases.
A defendant in an asbestos lawsuit could ask a judge to delay the start of a trial if it has reason to believe the plaintiff has withheld information on another lawsuit or failed to sue someone he should have.
"We're trying to, number one, prevent double-dipping by plaintiffs who are entitled to a single recovery under the laws that exist in Ohio and have existed for the last 10 years in which a defendant is responsible to pay only a share of the judgment for which the defendant is at fault ... ," Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) said.
"Let's put all the evidence in front of the court so that the court and the trier of fact can allocate responsibility among those folks who caused the plaintiff's injury," he said. He noted that there can be a long line of potential defendants in a case of manufacturers, users, and sellers of products containing asbestos.
Critics of the bill, however, accused majority Republicans of throwing up more obstacles to asbestos victims, a decade after passing a law that made it tougher for those exposed to the substance to sue. About 90 percent of some 40,000 asbestos cases pending in Ohio courts at the time were dismissed because the plaintiffs could not demonstrate substantial impairment of their health beyond simple changes in a chest X-ray.
"This legislation is again another example of the 129th General Assembly's war on Ohio workers," said Sen. Mike Skindell (D., Lakewood). "It is a piece of legislation brought to us in part by the corporate-influenced American Legislative Exchange Council, otherwise known as ALEC.
"Ohio and America's workers are suffering from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma because of corporate greed, plain and simple," he said.
If it becomes law, the bill would affect all cases not yet filed as well as those already in the pipeline but for which a trial has not yet started.
Most manufacturers of products containing asbestos, including Toledo-based Owens Corning, long ago went through federal bankruptcy proceedings that resulted in the creation of more than 60 trusts against which asbestos victims could make claims.
This bill is primarily focused on aiding other companies like Perrysburg-based Owens-Illinois that did not go through bankruptcy and are still fighting asbestos-related lawsuits more than 40 years after the fibrous substance was pulled from the market.
Senators Scott Oelslager (R., North Canton), Frank LaRose (R., Akron), Jim Hughes (R., Columbus), and Gayle Manning (R., North Ridgeville) voted against the bill.
Among northwest Ohio's delegation, Sens. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), Cliff Hite (R., Findlay), and David Burke (R., Marysville) voted for the bill; Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo) voted "no."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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