What would you do to keep the doors of the courthouses open to victims of negligent corporations – especially victims who have precious little time to live? How would you respond to U S Chamber of Commerce lobbyists who want to inject junk science into legitimate lawsuits filed in Utah? How hard would you fight to prevent the rules of evidence from being tilted in favor of companies and groups favoring unneeded tort reform? Who would you turn to for help when you have only 10 days to fight a last minute piece of bombshell legislation that would turn Utah courts on their heads and impose out-of-state laws and procedures on a Utah legal system that already works?
If you answered, I’d fight with all my strength to prevent injustice and I’d turn to my brothers and sisters in both UAJ and AAJ to stand with me, then read on…
Ten days before the 2016 legislative session was to conclude, and without any advanced warning, a vile piece of tort law legislation that would substantively change Utah civil procedure and decades of case law was introduced and immediately set for a hearing with less than 36 hours notice. This proposed law, if passed, would have (1) upended the process by which certain asbestos cases could be filed, (2) stripped away the privacy rights of Utah citizens, (3) overruled a trial judge’s discretion with respect to ruling on the relevance of evidence, (4) created unprecedented legal defenses for manufacturers, premises owners, etc , (5) impacted the medical practice and procedures of Utah doctors and so much more This legislation was dreamed up by the U S Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC and conferred all its supposed “benefits” on out-of-state interests at the expense of dying Utah citizens, furthered a national agenda of tort reform and created a “solution” in search of a non-existent “problem ” The legislative abomination I am describing was HB403 and it was deceptively titled Asbestos Litigation Transparency Act
As an asbestos lawyer for over 24 years, I should note that the only “transparency” for which I have found it necessary to fight was the “transparency” of getting defendants to honestly and fully answer discovery as part of lawsuits that I pursued on behalf of my dying (or dead) clients and their families, of corporate representatives of the defendant companies to answer questions honestly and fully in depositions and/or at trial, and to expose the lawyer made/company paid for asbestos “science” that confounds logic and simply furthers the defensive plan as set forth by tobacco companies years ago to make “doubt” their product, not truth
I came to learn about HB403 the day after it was introduced, which was also the day before it was set for a hearing in committee My first phone calls and emails were to Brook Millard, UAJ and AAJ to assist in formulating a plan of attack – not just a plan of defense
On the day set for the bill’s first hearing, I arranged to fly up my client, William Dale Peterson (and his wife) who was suffering from mesothelioma, and whose case we had filed in Salt Lake City just a little over a year ago His presence at the hearing put the bill’s lobbyists from both the U S Chamber of Commerce and the Utah Civil Justice League into a tight spot – they were prepared to roll over us, not respond to an actual asbestos victim Unprepared to deal with opposition they did not expect, the committee and bill sponsor (Rep Brad Wilson) postponed the hearing to a date uncertain And thus began the trench war
As in all “civilized” wars, a parley was had between the warring sides before blood was to be spilled Appearing for the good guys were Brook Millard, Alan Mortensen and me, and representing the bad guys was Mark Behrens from Shook Hardy & Bacon (Washington, D C ) for the U S Chamber, and Justin Stewart for the Utah Civil Justice League Kudos to Brook and Alan for their barely controlled righteous indignation at being hoodwinked by the Utah Civil Justice League with this bill Despite having previewed and prepared for the bills each side expected to address in the current legislative session, the Asbestos bill was kept hidden from view Alan and Brook made it clear that UAJ would not sit quietly or still when surprised like this and would fight to kill any bill introduced so surreptitiously
By contrast, having seen other (failed) versions of this bill introduced in a handful of other states, and having worked with colleagues in many of those states on the same issues being proposed here, I prepared for the inevitable “negotiations” that would follow – and thus, I (with the approval of the UAJ Legislative Committee) began a dialogue with the U S Chamber lobbyist, who was in complete control of the bill
Over the next 10 days, with the full and unwavering support of UAJ and AAJ, we went on the offensive We would not stop the Asbestos bill outright, but we made certain that the bill as introduced would never get passed In this fight, I was supported and motivated daily by Brook Millard, Alan Mortensen, Eric Mann (UAJ Executive Director), Dan Hinkle (AAJ State Affairs Counsel), Ben Somberg (AAJ Press Secretary), Alex Formuzis (Environmental Working Group), UAJ members Scott Lythgoe, Steve Sullivan and others, plus the invaluable guidance of our own legislative advocates: Steve Barth and Nancy Sechrest And since I am not a law firm of one, I have to thank Barrett Naman from my office, who was instrumental in working with me and our clients to get everyone to the Capitol and have their voices heard Together we were able to bring enough pressure to whittle the bill down to a level that had minimal impact on the rights of victims in the State.
When HB403 eventually had its committee hearing, I was fortunate to be able to have three of my Utah clients testify against the bill, one from Salt Lake City and one from St George (both living with the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma), as well as another from Salt Lake City, whose wife had succumbed to her malignant mesothelioma just days before the bill was introduced This client came with his grieving family to speak for the dead For those of you inclined to hear their stories, here’s the link to the House Business and Labor Committee hearing on HB403 that took place.
So, how did this all end? About as well as could be expected, given that the bill’s sponsor is in House leadership and the committee on which he sat was considering the bill I initially just wanted to kill the bill, and with the support of UAJ that was a real possibility But equally possible and more likely was a bigger fight next session, where our leverage was less sure and the outcome less certain With the support of UAJ, I negotiated a “compromise” bill with the lawyer representing the U S Chamber of Commerce (because this was and always will be THEIR bill), which effectively neutered the bill’s harshest parts and left in place some procedural hurdles that were considered manageable Is this bill good for Utah citizens? Not in a million years Does this bill only help the companies sued in asbestos lawsuits and impose needless burdens on victims of asbestos diseases who have precious little time to live? That’s exactly what the bill’s sponsors wanted and got.
Here’s my take-away from my first foray into Utah lawmaking: first and foremost, be a UAJ member and be an AAJ member You are never alone when you are part of these groups Second, even in a state like Utah, where the voices of trial lawyers are often outshouted by our opponents, you can make a difference by showing up to fight, and even more of a difference when your clients show up too.
Thanks to all who provided guidance and support You have my thanks and will have my support in the years to come.
Original article from Utah Association of Justice – Utah Trial Journal – Volume 39, No 2 – Summer 2016
Rick Nemeroff, Esq. is the founder of The Nemeroff Law Firm that has offices in Park City, UT; Dallas, TX; Houston, TX; New Orleans, LA; and Pittsburgh, PA. The Nemeroff Law Firm is a nationally recognized trial firm dedicated to helping individuals and families who suffer from asbestos related mesothelioma, harmful pharmaceuticals, and catastrophic personal injuries or death as a result of the wrongful or negligent conduct of others. The Nemeroff Law firm’s website is www.NemeroffLaw.com.
Rick is a member of the prestigious American Board of Trial Advocates, (ABOTA), the American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Utah Association of Justice (UAJ) and other state and local bar associations.
Rick resides in Park City, UT with his family where he is on the Park City Medical Center Foundation Board and is the Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Park City Day School.