FARGO — Representatives of organized labor and other critics of a new North Dakota law spoke out Wednesday, May 26, stating the legislation, which takes effect Aug. 1, will make it more difficult for workers harmed by asbestos to seek compensation.
Backers of the law say it is intended to weed out frivolous claims and give people who have been harmed by asbestos quicker access to the courts.
At a news conference at the Fargo AMVETS Club Post No. 7, a variety of speakers urged North Dakotans who have been exposed to asbestos to get medical screening by July 15, 2021, in order to begin the process of seeking legal relief.
After July 31, when the new law known as House Bill 1207 takes effect, it will become more difficult to bring legal action and to explore the full extent of someone's asbestos exposure, said David Thompson, a Grand Forks attorney who specializes in asbestos litigation.
Thompson was joined at the news conference by Jeanette Boechler, a Fargo attorney who also handles asbestos litigation cases.
Asbestos is a fire-resistant material that for many years was used in a variety of products, including building materials such as insulation.
Exposure to asbestos fibers has long been known to be associated with potentially deadly diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Landis Larson, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, said the union has embarked on a campaign to get workers and others who may have been exposed to asbestos to get chest X-rays as soon as possible to determine if they have an injury for which they can be compensated.
Larson said it is important to do the testing and contact a lawyer by July 15 in order to file a lawsuit before Aug. 1.
He said the issue is personal for him because both of his in-laws died years ago from mesothelioma, which he now believes was brought on by his father-in-law's job.
"He was an electrician and I'm sure he brought the asbestos home to his wife," Larson said.
Brad Berg, an organizer with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said he has been exposed to asbestos several times in connection with work he has done, including removing insulation from pipes in ships and doing manufacturing work.
Berg said he plans to get his chest X-rays next week and he urged members of unions to contact their union representative if they are interested in getting screening done.
He said anyone can visit the AFL-CIO website at www.ndaflcio.org for guidance on getting screened and finding an attorney.
North Dakota State Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, a sponsor of HB 1207, says the law is good legislation because it aims to eliminate frivolous lawsuits while also limiting defendants to parties actually responsible for the harm caused.
He said the "over-naming" of defendants in liability lawsuits can lead to burdensome costs for small businesses that may be tangentially connected to a product but ultimately are dismissed from a suit.
During the bill's testimony stage, Judge John Irby, presiding judge of the East Central Judicial District in North Dakota, wrote to lawmakers to say he felt compelled to comment on the bill's potential impact on case flow.
Irby wrote that he could envision "significant pretrial litigation" arising from requirements contained in the bill and he urged a "go-slow" approach so that effects on court resources could be determined.
"I would even go so far as to say that it would be appropriate to refer this legislation for a study and bring it back for full consideration in the next session," Irby wrote in his letter, which was dated Jan. 29.
Koppelman said Irby's letter arrived after the bill was passed by the House and he said he believes amendments were approved to make sure the law "would work well in our North Dakota courts from a practical standpoint."
Koppelman said he supported the call for people to get checked out if they believe exposure to asbestos has harmed them.
"I have no problem with that at all," he said.
"What we want to do is ensure that people who are really sick can have their day in court and get whatever compensation is due them," Koppelman added.