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Senator Patty Murray today spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate to call for protection of all asbestos victims and their families while the Senate considers class action reform legislation. Her speech came hours after President Bush again called for class action and asbestos reform in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club. The speech also followed news of an indictment against chemical company W.R. Grace, who knowingly poisoned workers and residents in Libby, Montana, where hundreds of people have died from asbestos exposure.



Murray is the author of the Ban Asbestos in America Act, a bill to ban use of the deadly substance, that Murray has fought to pass for several years.



Murray's floor remarks follow:



Mr. President, today the Senate is debating a class action lawsuit bill.



This afternoon in Detroit, President Bush said, "Congress needs to pass meaningful class action and asbestos legal reform this year." Well my response is – before we pass something – we better understand how it will affect the rights and lives of average Americans.



Unfortunately, the bill before us will unfairly tip the scales of justice against average citizens.



It will give big businesses even more power to avoid responsibility for their actions. And it will delay justice for many victims who deserve justice. You don't have to look very far to see why average citizens need access to our courts.



Just look at this morning's newspaper – It reports that yesterday the federal government indicted the W.R. Grace Company for knowingly sickening workers and residents in Libby, Montana -- where hundreds of people have died from asbestos exposure.



The indictment charges that company officials knew of the dangers to workers and the community and created a conspiracy to hide those dangers. I hope these indictments bring a small measure of justice to the thousands of people who have suffered in Libby and around the country.



These people worked hard and provided for their families, but the company they worked for knowingly poisoned them and covered it up. The federal government is finally going after the company and the executives who made the decisions that put workers and the entire community at risk.



Here is the story from today's Seattle P-I. "Grace indicted in asbestos deaths. Mine Company and seven executives face criminal charges."



Mr. President, I ask that the full article be included in the RECORD after my remarks. The story of what happened in Libby, Montana is heartbreaking. Years ago, when I first heard about what happened there, I began a campaign to ban asbestos and to protect its victims.



In June 2002, I testified at a hearing about Libby before the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, Risk, and Waste Management. The people of Libby have been waiting for this day for a long time.



This indictment tells companies that they are responsible for their decisions and that human lives are more important than profits.



The indictments send a message - If you're putting workers and consumers at risk, if you try to hide the dangers you will be prosecuted.



Because at the end of the day – this isn't about profits – it's about people. People like Gayla Benefield, who I met last summer.



Gayla’s father worked at W.R. Grace’s vermiculite mine and mill in Libby from 1954 to 1973. Her father died of asbestosis in 1974. Gayla's mother never worked in a mine – but she was exposed to asbestos fibers on her husband's work clothes. Gayla's mother died of asbestosis in 1996. Gayla herself was exposed to asbestos fibers when she hugged her dad after work. Then, in December 2001, Gayla and her husband David were diagnosed with lung abnormalities.



In all, about 37 people in Gayla's family have signs of asbestos disease. Only three ever worked in the mine. As my colleagues know, for the past four years, I've been speaking out about the dangers of asbestos and the need to ban it. I've stood up for victims and their families.

I've introduced legislation to protect workers, educate the public, and improve research and treatment.

Last year, when Congress considered an inadequate trust fund bill, I stood up for asbestos victims and voted against it. We still have a lot of work to do to take care of current victims and to prevent future deaths.



And that's one of the reasons why I'm so concerned about the Class Action bill that's now before the Senate.



The bill allows companies to move class action lawsuits from state jurisdiction to federal jurisdiction. That could delay justice for years. In many cases, victims have been waiting a long time for their day in court. If their cases are moved to federal court, they'll essentially have to start all over at the bottom of the pile.



That’s because federal courts already have a massive backlog of cases. It's one of the reasons why the federal bench opposes this bill. If class action lawsuits are dumped onto federal courts, they will fall to the bottom of the list of priorities. And even if they work their way up to the top of the docket after many years, they won't be resolved quickly because they are such complicated cases.



The bill before us could add years to the amount of time it takes to resolve a case. Unfortunately, asbestos victims don't have time on their side. Once a person is diagnosed with mesothelioma, they usually only have 6-18 months to live.



So if companies know they can play legal games, they can just "wait it out" – just move the case and hold things up -- until the victim dies. When that happens, there is no justice.



For someone with the death sentence of an asbestos disease, justice delayed is justice denied. That's why Congress should reject this class action bill. There are other ways this bill could deny justice.



Companies could wait until a victim's medical bills or lost wages are so high that the victim is forced into an unfair settlement. Once again, this bill tips the scales of justice against average Americans.



Mr. President, I've focused on asbestos victims but this class action bill would affect many more type of victims. Anyone with a class action lawsuit could find themselves pushed into federal court at the bottom of list. Congress should not delay and deny justice for victims.



As for asbestos victims, we still have a lot of work to do. Each year, 10,000 Americans die from asbestos diseases. The first thing we need to do is ban the production and importation of asbestos in the United States. Every year it's put in 3,000 consumer products such as hair dryers, floor tile and automobile brakes. If we know it's deadly, we should stop putting it in consumer products.



Later this year, I will re-introduce my Ban Asbestos in America Act. The first year I introduced it we only had 4 cosponsors. In the last session, we had 14.



We also made progress including my ban in the asbestos liability legislation that was considered by the Judiciary Committee. My ban is also included in Senator Specter's most recent version of the bill. We also need to help victims by investing in mesothelioma research and treatment. We need to boost awareness of how consumers and workers can protect themselves.



For example, today up to 35 million homes, businesses and schools have deadly Zonolite insulation in their attics. People need to know about that danger so they can protect themselves. Many employees are still in danger – from construction workers to auto mechanics. And let's not forget that many asbestos victims were exposed to asbestos when they served our country in the military.



About 32 percent of asbestos victims are Navy veterans, many of whom worked in the Bremerton Shipyard in my home state of Washington.



The dangers of asbestos are not just limited to Libby, Montana or military communities. They are everywhere, and this Congress needs to address them the right way.



Congress should make sure that asbestos victims can get the justice they deserve – that's why I'll vote against this class action bill and will continue the fight to ban asbestos and help victims.

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