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Critics of North Dakota law: Get asbestos health screening

May 26, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Labor unions and veterans groups are urging North Dakotans who may have been exposed to asbestos to get screened before a new law takes effect that will make it more difficult to sue.

Backers of the law, which will bar people from suing over asbestos exposure unless they’ve already been sickened by it, say its intent is largely to guard against fraudulent claims.

Gov. Doug Burgum signed the Republican-sponsored bill into last last month after it sailed through the Legislature along mostly partly-line votes in the House and Senate. It takes effect Aug. 1.

Landis Larson, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, said the new law adds “arbitrary roadblocks in the way of asbestos disease victims.” His organization and veterans groups are hoping to get as many people screened as possible “so they will be grandfathered under the old law. It will be almost impossible to get any kind of relief after this new law comes in.”

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Asbestos is a building material linked with deadly mesothelioma cancer and other health problems. It has been the subject of lawsuits that have led to billions of dollars in damages being paid to victims from trust funds established by the makers of products that contain asbestos, such as roofing material, insulation, tiling and brake linings.

Insurance industry groups and insurance companies supported the new law.

Steve Schneider, vice president of state affairs for The American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said in testimony that “this important legislation gives priority to asbestos plaintiffs who can demonstrate impairment according to objective criteria utilized by the medical community.”

He said the legislation “also helps to ensure that plaintiffs with actual impairment are suing the proper defendants with an actual connection to the plaintiff.” It also will “help ensure that asbestos trials are both efficient and fair by allowing courts to consolidate,” he said.

Jaclyn Hall, executive director of the association representing trial lawyers in North Dakota, called the Legislation “an industry bailout bill” that strips workers of constitutional rights.

Asbestos-related diseases have a long latency period. Larson said he has had two relatives die of mesothelioma long after exposure.

Nearly 740 North Dakotans have died from asbestos exposure since 1999, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database.

Jim Nelson, who heads the North Dakota Veterans Legislative Council, testified in opposition to the bill, saying “thousands upon thousands” of military veterans were “regularly and unknowingly exposed to asbestos.”

About 10 states in recent years have passed legislation similar to North Dakota’s new law. Nelson said veterans groups have opposed similar legislation in other states that he said will “delay and deny compensation for sick and dying veterans and others by placing additional burdens” on them.