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The American Bar Association urged Congress Tuesday to restrict who can sue over exposure to cancer-causing asbestos, a stand that could cut the business of its own members. The position aligned the country’s largest lawyers association with business and insurance groups, its opponents on many issues. But ABA leaders argued that lawyers should accept blame for a crisis in courts overwhelmed with 600,000 asbestos claims, as well as the bankruptcies of dozens of companies that were sued. “This is not tort reform, it’s scandal reform,” said Terrence Lavin, a Chicago plaintiffs’ attorney. “I have watched helplessly as some, but not all, members of the asbestos bar have made a mockery of our civil justice system and inflicted financial ruin on corporate America.” Asbestos, a heat-resistant mineral once used widely in insulation and fireproofing, has been found to cause severe, sometimes deadly, health problems. Companies that ran mines and shipyards or used asbestos in products have been sued by former workers and consumers. Mary Alexander, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, argued that the ABA recommendations would close courts to 90 percent of the people who have sued. “Those who are sick but not dying would be denied,” she said during a spirited debate on the final day of the ABA’s winter meeting in Seattle. The ABA did not consider caps on jury awards, supported by some groups. Instead, it tried to differentiate between people who are really sick and those who are not. Now, that is left up to a jury. The ABA plan sets medical standards for people who have been exposed to asbestos but do not have cancer. Those who do not qualify under the standards could not sue. They could go to court later if their conditions worsen. The issue was one of the more controversial of the proposals taken up during the meeting. Union opponents handed out letters critical of the plan outside the convention center on Monday, and opponents and supporters both brought people with asbestos-related health problems to Seattle to influence the debate. “You’ve got to be knocking on death’s door, close to the Grim Reaper to get into court” under the ABA standard, said Les Skramstad, a former mine worker from Libby, Mont., who suffers from asbestosis. ABA leaders said Libby victims would not be restricted by the proposal. That was disputed by Skramstad’s lawyer, Roger Sullivan, who held up a picture of an ill woman during the debate and said the plan “punishes the very people it should help, the sick and dying of Libby.” As many as 120,000 people have lost their jobs because of lawsuits that have forced more than 60 more companies into bankruptcy protection in the past few years, former federal Judge Nathaniel Jones said. Jones said the ABA should use its power to lobby Congress for a solution. Business groups are also pushing for new laws. Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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