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Senate committee kills speaker's asbestos liability bill in an unusually terse meeting

Anita Kumar

A Virginia Senate committee killed a proposal championed by House Speaker William J. Howell that would have helped protect a Fortune 500 company from asbestos lawsuits.

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee voted 13 to 2 with just one Republican and one Democrat siding with Howell, who had quietly maneuvered behind the scenes for much of the legislative session to garner support for the bill, HB 629. The House of Delegates narrowly passed the bill last month.

The proposal -- one of the few that Howell (R-Stafford) put his considerable power behind -- would limit liability for Philadelphia-based Crown Cork & Seal.

Senators, including Committee Chairman Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), were unusually terse in their meeting, cutting off the company's general counsel and asking him a series of pointed questions that made it clear which way they were leaning.

"Crown would have no way of knowing that 10 years in the future, the greatest mass tort in the history of the world would rear its head,'' William Gallagher, the company's general counsel, told senators Monday.

"You didn't just arrive here from Mars," Saslaw responded a few minutes later.

The vote came on the last week of the legislative session after company officials made an aggressive last-minute push -- arguing they would have to close Virginia factories if the bill did not pass and asking plant workers to show up at the hearing wearing white stickers saying "Save Crown Cork."

Crown Cork employs about 300 workers in Winchester and Suffolk and has about 500 retirees in the state.

"At the end of the day, if we don't provide them some relief, then they will not survive,'' said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester). "These jobs will be lost ... it will be a huge deal."

Howell's chief of staff, G. Paul Nardo, said the speaker pursued the proposal because of his long-standing interest in tort reform and because of his involvement with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has been pushing the Crown Cork bill in state legislatures across the nation since 2006. Howell served as the group's national chairman last year.

Crown Cork, where the bottle cap was invented, bought a small, family-owned company for $7 million in 1963. Before the sale, that company, Mundet, had been involved in asbestos insulation for years, company officials said.

Crown Cork has since been named in more than 300,000 asbestos claims; it paid $600 million in expenses and coped with higher interest rates on borrowing, according to company documents.

Owens Illinois, a Fortune 500 glass container manufacturer that argues that it would pay more in asbestos claims if Crown Cork was no longer held liable, opposed the bill, as did trial lawyers, manufacturers and some unions.

Since 2007, Crown Cork has spent more than $100,000 on lobbyists to get the bill passed and donated more than $100,000 to 46 Virginia legislators or their political action committees, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.

By Anita Kumar  |  March 8, 2010; 6:15 PM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar , General Assembly 2010 , House of Delegates , State Senate  
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Posted by: nikejordans1 | March 8, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

"Owens Illinois, a Fortune 500 glass container manufacturer that argues that it would pay more in asbestos claims if Crown Cork was no longer held liable, opposed the bill..."

how many work for Owens Illinois in Virginia?

"...as did trial lawyers..."

so what?

Posted by: millionea7 | March 9, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

There seemed to be an awful lot of frenzied lobbying and back-room dealings here. Liability cases aside, I'd like to see asbestos awareness get more prominent, public attention - it's extremely hazardous, education on it is low, and it keeps rearing its ugly head like this.
- JM, http://www.banasbestosnow.com

Posted by: MesoRC | March 9, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Typical big business trying get around their responsibility. Big business always hurts the little guy.

Posted by: Reality6 | March 9, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

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