Yesterday, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill, on its third and final attempt, which limits the liability of a single Fortune 500 company in asbestos lawsuits: Philadelphia based Crown Cork & Seal. The bill was sponsored and championed by Republican House Speaker William J. Howell. The Senate has yet to make a decision regarding the bill.
The bill brings additional tort "reform" to the Commonwealth of Virginia, where Crown Cork & Seal employs 300 workers. Howell’s chief of staff, Paul G. Nardo, noted that Speaker Howell’s interest in the bill is directly linked to his long-standing interest in tort "reform". The bill was introduced by Del. Terry G. Kilgore on Speaker Howell’s behalf, and he noted to The Washington Post that he “thought it might be a good type of tort relief for Virginia” and that “it gets someone out of the mix of those asbestos cases that really shouldn’t be in the mix in the first place.” (There are likely to be some people in Virginia suffering from asbestos-related illnesses who may wish to debate the Delegate on that latter issue, however.)
Crown Cork & Seal and Speaker Howell are both members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC lobbies on behalf of some 300 private companies (who include, among their ranks, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart and pay $7,000 to join) and some 2,000 legislators (who pay $50 to join) by giving them a say in what legislation the group backs. The bills that ALEC “ghostwrites” are bills pertaining to the subjects pushed by other members of ALEC. Speaker Howell was ALEC’s national chairman in 2009.
ALEC has been pushing the Crown Cork bill nationwide since 2006, and since it began lobbying for asbestos litigation protection in that year, 11 states have passed similar bills. Five more states are considering the bill, including Virginia.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project (a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics), Crown Cork has donated over $100,000 to 46 Virginia legislators or their political action committees since 2007, with the majority of the House and Senate committee members included. In 2008 Crown Cork spent $25,095 on four lobbyists to get the bills passed, and spent $84,167 in 2009 on seven. In those two years, the bill was met with defeat in two separate committees. As a result of some seat changes this year (two Democrats were relocated and three open seats were filled by Republicans), the legislation passed 11 to 9.
The bill was met with opposition, with one Fortune 500 company – Owens Illinois – coming forward to say that it would pay more in asbestos claims if one company, Crown Cork & Seal, was no longer held liable. Opposition to the bill came in strongly on that one note: the bill benefits and protects one company and one company alone, Crown Cork & Seal.
Hopefully, the Virginia Senate will not follow the House and will vote down this bill.
Is it fundamentally fair and equitable that one company (or more, for that matter) that has the resources to apparently buy immunity from legislatures is able to obtain such immunity? This writer believes the passage of this bill by the Virginia House of Delegates to be unfortunate, and fundamentally wrong. The only way to fix this kind of legislating is through the voters. Citizens may not have the money that Corporate America has, but they do have something important: the right to vote. Personal responsibility should not only apply to people, but to our corporate citizens as well.