The only thing good about today’s news coverage of New York City's (non) blizzard is that it paused some of the frenzied news reporting around last week’s complaint filed against NY Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver.
The federal government alleges that Silver received roughly $3 million in additional attorney referral fees when the speaker obtained referrals of asbestos cases to Weitz & Luxenberg from a New York City doctor, identified as a mesothelioma expert. The complaint alleges that Silver used his official position to secretly direct $500,000 of state money to the doctor’s research and to give the doctor and his family additional benefits.
I hope reporters and commentators take this short break to learn a few things about the victims who sue and are helped by these cases. Nowhere - and I mean nowhere - are even the most responsible media outlets accurately reporting anything close to a “fair and balanced” description of asbestos cases, how they work, whom they help, and why they are needed. (Yes, that’s an intentional Fox News analogy because I see little difference between what, for example, the New York Time is publishing and what factually-challenged Fox News bloviators report.)
Let’s quickly review. Asbestos is a lethal toxin. The industry, which knew this for over 50 years, engaged in one of the worst corporate cover-ups in history just so they wouldn’t have to pay compensation to their victims. See more in Paul Brodeur’s seminal book. Companies still use asbestos, workers are still exposed to it and 10,000 Americans still die from asbestos-related illnesses every year. This is not an old problem. It’s an ongoing one.
How are people exposed? Take a Navy shipyard worker. There’s a ubiquitous presence of asbestos on ships and servicemembers can spend years cutting and removing products like pipes and gaskets that are full of asbestos. When they become sick multiple companies are almost always at fault. Mesothelioma or "meso", the most lethal asbestos diseases, is only caused from asbestos exposure. If you contract mesothelioma, within 4 to 18 months you will die an excruciatingly painful death.
Who helps these victims and their families, and as quickly as possible? Not liable companies like Georgia Pacific, owned by Koch Industries, that’s for sure. They are helped by skilled asbestos law firms who are referred cases, and a few dedicated physicians like Dr. Robert Taub, who devoted his professional life to helping these victims, was beloved by them and has now been fired for taking state research money because no one else funds this research. Yay.
Let’s take a look at the recent front page New York Times article about all this. In an attempt to argue that meso is a disappearing problem, the article says, “[r]elatively few people suffer from the disease — it is diagnosed in about 3,000 people a year — and the number is in decline as the dangers of asbestos have become well known.” Here’s what the last three years of CDC statistics show: In 2005, there were 2,553 meso cases; in 2009, 2,606; in 2010, 2,573. Statistically flat? yes. Up and down? Perhaps. In decline? Hardly, at least not yet.
Now for some biased blind quotes, which are well-beneath the journalistic standards of the New York Times:
- “As a result, mesothelioma doctors and personal injury lawyers specializing in asbestos-related litigation have developed over the years what some medical ethical experts describe as an unseemly alliance.” Whose “medical experts,” Koch Industries? In fact, that “unseemly alliance” provides funding for meso research, which the article admits is not funded by other sources, while it also provides excellent legal representation for sick and dying victims of corporate misconduct.
- “For plaintiffs’ lawyers, mesothelioma patients are a bonanza, worth $1.5 million to $2 million on average per case, according to legal experts.” The fact that no one apparently would go on record calling sick patients dying from a dreadful and painful disease a “bonanza” should have given pause to the Times editors - let alone the reporter – about including such a biased depiction.
The U.S. House Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law Subcommittee Vice-Chairman Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) has just introduced H.R. 526, the FACT Act. This bill would, as we said recently, require asbestos trusts to disclose on a public web site private, confidential information about every asbestos claimant and their families, including their names, addresses, where they work, how much they make, some medical information, how much they received in compensation and the last four digits of their social security numbers. At the same time, as noted by an earlier New York Times editorial, the legislation does not ask the companies to do one thing to help the victims, or to disclose any information that could help a claimant with his or her case.
In fact, the bill would also slow down or stop the process by which the asbestos trusts review and pay claims, so that many victims – particularly meso patients - would die before receiving compensation. The bill’s sponsors say this bill would, “Increase Relief for Victims of Asbestos,” a statement so ridiculous we’re not wasting our time on it.
As usual, the victims are the forgotten faces in this debate. They have been lost in the one-sided, way-too-breathless news coverage of asbestos and the Silver complaint. They deserve better from the New York Times, and from others.