Bill critics have serious concerns that settlement trust claimants’ privacy rights would be compromised.
Introduced into both houses of Congress is a controversial federal bill that would require asbestos settlement trusts to publicly release quarterly reports containing personal information about claimants. The FACT Act, short for the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2015, is strongly opposed by some veterans' advocates as well as those for teachers and first responders.
In May 2015, the bill was ordered reported by the House Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law, while in the U.S. Senate, the measure has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.
Many companies with histories of potentially having exposed their workers to asbestos on the job because of the mineral's release from building materials or products into the air during work processes have filed for reorganization bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. As part of their court-approved reorganization plans, most of these businesses established settlement trusts containing money to pay personal injury and wrongful death claims of former employees and their survivors for harm from asbestos exposure like mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and death.
The amount paid on a claim from an asbestos settlement trust typically only reimburses the victim for a small percentage of the claim's actual value. Filing a claim with a settlement trust is complex and requires significant medical and other information, so it is a good idea to retain an attorney with direct experience with these trusts.
The FACT Act was introduced by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who wrote in an October 2015 article in The Hill that his bill is designed to combat fraud and abuse by increasing transparency through the proposed quarterly reports that would be filed with the bankruptcy court. The reports would contain information about every claim filed with the trust, including the claimant's name, "exposure history" and the reason for any payout to that claimant.
The report data would be available to any party to a lawsuit concerning asbestos injury or death, including to companies who are defendants in such suits.
The legislation states that the information is not to include full Social Security numbers or confidential medical records, but critics of the bill have serious concerns about claimant privacy rights. For example, the bill would still allow publication of the last four digits of a claimant's Social Security number, opening him or her up to possible identity theft.
That veterans and service members disproportionately suffer from asbestos-related diseases because of unknowing exposure to the mineral during military service is a widely documented fact. Officials of three veterans' advocacy organizations strongly responded to Farenthold's assertions in their own article in The Hill, objecting to the bill with several assertions, including:
- The bill would require veterans to publicly reveal highly sensitive personal information in order to file claims.
- The reporting and other administrative requirements would impose administrative burdens on the trusts, resulting in depletion of funds and delay of payment of trust claims until claimants have died, which could mean lower payments to survivors.
- The bill is supported by the asbestos industry and favors it over asbestos victims.
Asbestos victims' advocates will continue to oppose this bill. In the meantime, anyone with an asbestos-related disease or his or her family member should contact a personal injury attorney to understand the array of potential legal remedies, including trust claims and lawsuits.
The lawyers of Brayton Purcell, L.L.P., represent those injured by asbestos exposure and their families nationwide from offices in California, Washington, Oregon and Utah, with co-counsel in Oklahoma and Hawaii.