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Lawmakers made significant progress on proposed asbestos reform legislation Thursday, agreeing early in the day to amendments ensuring the solvency of a national trust fund over its 27-year lifespan and beyond until all asbestos claimants are paid. To do so, the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to increase the contribution of corporations and insurance companies to the fund by as much as $45 billion. The total value of the fund would increase to as much as $153 billion, as opposed to the previously proposed $108 billion. At press time, the committee was still at work on one last major issue — the appropriate award values for asbestos claimants — which must be resolved to get the bill closer to its final form. In addition, the committee still had dozens of proposed amendments to consider. Committee chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced S.1125, the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2003, in May. He said Thursday that he expected to complete work on the bill. The measure would create a trust fund to pay those claiming they were exposed to asbestos while eliminating liability for companies facing asbestos lawsuits. The additional $45 billion is contingent on whether the fund is solvent. The fund administrator would evaluate the fund each year, and if it wasn’t solvent, the contingency mechanism would go into effect. The proposed legislation includes a mandatory “step-down” in funding each of the 27 years, meaning companies would contribute less money each year. However, if the fund is found to be insolvent one year, then companies would be required to continue contributing to the fund at the prior year’s level. Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin, both Democrats, proposed the amendment. Also, to ensure that all asbestos claimants are paid even after the fund expires in 27 years, the amendment includes a provision that allows companies with asbestos liabilities and insurance companies to separately contribute $1 billion annually to further fund the trust. The additional $2 billion annual contribution would be voluntary. If companies decide not to contribute beyond the 27-year life of the fund, then any remaining asbestos claims against the company would return to the court system to be litigated. The committee approved an amendment submitted by Hatch that would require any such cases to be heard by a federal court instead of a state court. As the bill now stands, the highest award value an asbestos claimant would receive is $750,000, which is for the most severe form of cancer related to asbestos exposure. Many Democrats say the award values are too low. �Copyright 2003, The Deal, LLC. All rights reserved.

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