THE BLOG

Shedding a Tear for the Insurance Industry?

02/27/2013 11:57 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2013

I wanted to take a minute to draw attention to a story that isn't getting much play in the headlines. It turns out that deaths resulting from asbestos exposure of 20-50 years ago are expected to peak in 2015. Experts estimate that total U.S. deaths from asbestos will reach a half a million lives lost. Many of these deaths could have been prevented had the dangers of asbestos not been covered up and safety regulations stalled, which means that there will likely be waves of litigation on behalf of the victims of asbestos poisoning.

As a result, a recent ratings firm report estimated that insurers will need to set aside an additional $11 billion for claims that will eventually total $85 billion. That's $170,000 per victim.

For some, this is not the time to make things right with the victims. Or a chance to make sure we protect against this happening in the future. Oh no, to them, this is a time to defend who they see as the real victims in all of this: the insurance companies and others who would be on the hook for the damages.

As we speak, ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) is drafting and pushing legislation to make it harder for victims to sue. Because as they see it, a "flood" of victims seeking compensation must be evidence of fraud -- rather than a lot of people suffering and dying. It goes without saying that legislation to protect companies from asbestos victims makes good economic sense for corporations. In spite of the fact that the culpable companies are likely to outlast plaintiffs who can expect to die within 18 months after diagnosis, the insurers would rather just not have to go to court and deal with victims at all. ALEC is teaming up with lawmakers (predominantly Republican) to protect corporations from the toxic exposure compensation claims in Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, and at the federal level.

(You remember ALEC, right? They are the wonderful folks who brought us the "Stand Your Ground" laws and "The Voter Fraud Prevention Act." Even Walmart was too ashamed to support them.)

As in so many other areas on this, ALEC and their allies are in direct opposition to the popular sentiment of the American people by protecting insurers. Studies published in the insurance industry's own professional publications show that they have lost credibility in the public's eyes:

"Interestingly, insurers fared poorly against other industries when it comes to public trust. For example, while 71 percent of respondents expressed trust in the retail sector and 65 percent expressed trust in packaged food manufacturers, only 39 percent expressed trust in insurance companies. Indeed, only financial services companies (35 percent) and the federal government (31 percent) tallied a lower degree of trust among respondents."

By diverting the blame on "damn lawyers," ALEC and their allies in the press are trying a little sleight of hand. And, unfortunately, it looks like corporate press will once again change the debate from "asbestos victims who are real people who deserve justice" to their favorite trope of "lawyers vs. business."

Sadly, most of the victims of high intensity direct exposure to asbestos in the workplace are already dead. The current wave of diagnosis includes family members with secondary exposure, like wives who washed their husbands asbestos-contaminated work clothes every day. In response to their claims, insurance companies formed a posse with their friends in government and are spending their time and resources trying to prevent victims and their families from seeking remedy for their pain, instead of accepting responsibility, paying their debt to society, and changing their ways.

ALEC and their allies in government and the media can cry their crocodile tears for the poor, downtrodden insurance companies, but I won't shed a tear for the multimillion dollar industry. Like most people, I will send my sympathies to the families of people whose loved ones suffered and died terrible deaths -- and I will cheer the lawyers who defend them when they get their well deserved day in court.