Attack ads aimed at lawmakers sponsored by law firm of former state Sen. Weinstein

State legislators retaliate by killing bill on asbestos lawsuits

The strategy of using full-page newspaper ads to pressure three state senators apparently has backfired on a group of lawyers who were trying to change the state laws that apply to asbestos liability lawsuits.

Senate Bill 5964, the measure that would have made the sought-after changes, is now dead — retaliation for what Sens. Jim Kastama, Mary Margaret Haugen and Jim Hargrove and many of their colleagues considered attack ads that went over the top.

The advertisements suggested that the trio was denying justice to families of people who died from exposure to asbestos and accused Kastama, D-Puyallup; Haugen, D-Camano Island; and Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, of blocking the passage of the bill. The advertisements ran in several newspapers in the legislative districts of the three senators — The Tacoma News Tribune, The Olympian, The Everett Herald and The Aberdeen Daily World — and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The targeted senators lay most of the blame on a former colleague, Brian Weinstein, a Mercer Island lawyer who until December had been a Democratic senator representing King County’s Eastside communities. Weinstein is now a member of Bergman Draper & Frockt, the Seattle law firm that paid for the ads and which has been lobbying for passage of the bill.

“In four years, he [Weinstein] never really learned a thing about how this place works,” Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said on Saturday. Hatfield was supporting a couple of changes that Kastama and Haugen wanted to make to the original bill — changes that Weinstein’s firm did not want.

How “this place” works is this: Not only did the senators kill SB 5964, they also killed the so-called Homeowners Bill of Rights, a measure that Weinstein had championed for most of his term in the legislature and which he nearly got passed. It passed the Senate, but died in the House.

The News Tribune tried to contact Weinstein on Thursday, but his law office referred a reporter to the public relations firm of Mark Firmani in Seattle.

The statewide trial lawyers association, now called the Washington State Justice Association, tried to distance itself from the attack ads.

“We are writing on behalf of our organization to express our sincere regret for the advertisements in your papers regarding your alleged positions on Senate Bill 5964,” the president, past president and two lobbyists for the trial lawyers wrote in a letter on Friday to the three senators. “In our 20-plus years as an organization of being heavily involved with the legislative process, we have never used this tactic, and we disavow it.”

It was too late to salvage the asbestos litigation bill.

“My caucus is totally outraged,” Haugen said on Friday after receiving the letter. “The bills are terminal — dead.”

Larry Shannon, a lobbyist for the statewide groups of attorneys, said the original bill sought to fix what trial lawyers considered a bad ruling by the state Supreme Court in December. In the Simonetta case, the court ruled that a company that made turbine engines for the Bremerton Naval Shipyards was not liable for the asbestos injuries that arose after another company used asbestos to insulate the engines because that company did not manufacture the asbestos or use it, he said.

SB 5964 would have made it clear that such companies would indeed be liable if they failed to warn employees of the dangers of asbestos, and would be to blame for the mesothelioma that exposure to asbestos caused. The bill also would have been retroactive, which would have allowed the case to be revived.

Kastama had sponsored an amendment to get rid of the retroactive provision, as well as language that would have made companies liable because “they should have reasonably anticipated that asbestos would be added to its products.”

Kastama said it appeared that the bill would have created a new set of companies to sue — companies with money — because most, if not all, of the original asbestos manufacturers are bankrupt because of previous lawsuits and class-action settlements. The ad in The News Tribune, which cost about $10,000, asked, “Why is Senator Kastama blocking this important legislation designed to help those working men and women sick and dying from asbestos exposure?”

The Bergman, Draper & Frockt firm said that it ran the ads on behalf of a client, whose husband died at age 57 of a “horribly painful illness” after exposure to asbestos while working in the Bremerton shipyards.

Before he moved to Washington, Weinstein was a plaintiff’s lawyer in Texas and specialized in asbestos litigation. He told reporters earlier in this legislative session that he was not doing any lobbying at the legislature, but lawmakers later told reporters that he was.

Haugen sent a letter to the editor at the Everett and Skagit Valley newspapers, which carried the full-page ads attacking her, saying, “This very expensive undertaking is simply a heavy-handed attempt by a law firm to influence legislation that would benefit their clients, who are plaintiffs in asbestos-related lawsuits. It even featured a generic stock photo of a pipe fitter at Bremerton Naval Shipyard in a blatant attempt to elicit sympathy from the reader.”

It is unclear why any of the ads were aimed at Hargrove. Hargrove said that he was a co-sponsor of the original bill and had not yet made up his mind about whether to sign onto Kastama’s amendments.

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