In February, I traveled from my home in Phelps County to the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. I had come to speak at a state Senate hearing on a bill that would make it harder to hold companies that made or used asbestos accountable for the suffering of people exposed to the deadly material.
I didn’t know much about the bill then. I hadn’t had time to prepare. But I told the Government Reform Committee how my wife, Joyce, was diagnosed in January 2017 with metastatic mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by asbestos exposure. The cancer quickly spread to her brain. She died in April that same year, three days short of her 70th birthday. We had been married 49 years.
One of the senators on the committee is Justin Brown, who represents my district. I don’t know if he knew I was there, but he left the hearing before I could speak, as did several other members. Their votes weren’t recorded, but the bill passed out of committee and is now awaiting action in the full Senate.
I’ve since found out more about the bill. And what I’ve learned makes me angry.
Under the current system, victims can file for compensation from special trusts set up by some of the companies that made or used asbestos. But some companies that share responsibility for exposure aren’t covered by the trusts, so victims must take them to court separately.
This bill would make it much harder for those victims by requiring them to file detailed medical histories not necessarily related to their case. Once the case is filed, the bill would automatically grant companies a delay before the case goes to court and make it likely they could get further delays. For many mesothelioma victims, a delay means they will die before they get their day in court.
Joyce could have been exposed to asbestos a number of ways — through her work as a school nurse, or by handling the clothes I wore while working at industrial and construction sites or doing automotive brake repair. Many people have the mistaken idea that all asbestos victims are men who worked in heavy industry, but anyone who comes into contact with asbestos is vulnerable. There is no safe level of exposure, and symptoms may not show up for decades afterward.
Something else that surprised me: Although we’ve known for decades that asbestos is deadly and many of its uses have been phased out, it’s still legal in the U.S. Many products that contain asbestos aren’t required to carry a warning label, so there’s no way to know it’s there. Because future generations remain at risk, we must protect the right of victims to have their day in court.
There is an abundance of evidence that many companies that made or used asbestos knew it was dangerous. These companies cared more about making a dollar than protecting human lives. As I said, that makes me angry, but I’d also be angry at any Missouri legislator who votes for this bill. They need to realize that asbestos is the cause of terrible suffering — not just for the victim, but for the whole family as well.
Our five children, 11 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and I know we can’t have Joyce back. But we can speak out to try to make sure that victims and their loved ones get justice.
William Tyler is a retired industrial electrician. He lives in Flat, Missouri.