Earlier this week, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce ran full-page ads in several newspapers in the state, including this one, urging readers to call or write their legislators about a bill it says will keep the state from becoming "a hotbed for frivolous asbestos lawsuits."
The lawsuits, according to the ads, hurt business and victims alike.
"We want to make sure that doesn't happen here," said the Kansas chamber's president and chief executive officer S. Lewis Ebert.
But Lawrence lawyers Margaret Farley and Jerry Levy questioned the chamber's motive's Wednesday.
"I think it a frivolous bill - the ad itself says these cases aren't a problem in Kansas," Farley said. "It sort of begs the question of why they're trying to fix something that isn't broken, or why they're trying to micromanage a lawsuit before it's even filed."
Levy, a past president of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Assn., said he's not aware of a single asbestos lawsuit on file in Kansas.
"Frivolous lawsuits?" Levy said. "Ask the chamber to name the last time a frivolous lawsuit went to a jury and money was awarded. They can't do it because there are so many safeguards in place; there isn't one."
But the chamber says its aim is to prevent lawsuits that might be filed in the future.
Exposure to asbestos has been shown to cause lung disease and cancer.
The full-page ads appeared in the Lawrence Journal-World, Topeka Capital-Journal, Wichita Eagle and Kansas City Star.
Levy and Farley marveled that of all the issues facing businesses in Kansas, the chamber picked asbestos lawsuits.
Ebert insisted the campaign is driven by a coalition of member businesses - some in-state, some national - that have been or could be harmed by silly lawsuits.
"We are a member-driven organization," he said. "We do what our members want us to do."
Ebert denied any connection between the campaign and Wichita-based Koch Industries' recent purchase of Georgia-Pacific.
Georgia-Pacific is a defendant in several asbestos lawsuits over a wall compound it made between 1965 and 1977.
Jonathan Small, a lobbyist for Koch Industries, said his client is only one of many members of the coalition.
"Koch is helping, but it's the chamber that's taken the lead on this thing," Small said.
Kansas lawmakers have asked the trial lawyers and the chamber to work out a compromise for them.
Terry Humphrey, executive director for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Assn., who is party to the negotiations, disagreed that Koch is a small player.
"It's true that Koch isn't sitting at the table," she said, "but Koch is a definitely a player in this. They're right outside the door."
The state chamber's campaign surprised the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
"We've not been contacted by the state chamber on this," said Laverne Squier, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber.
The Lawrence chamber, he said, has not taken a position on asbestos lawsuits.
"Our legislative priorities for 2006 were eminent domain and TABOR - the Taxpayer Bill of Rights," Squier said.
The bill being pushed by the state chamber - House Substitute for Senate Bill 422 - restricts would-be plaintiffs' access to the courts in cases involving asbestos.
The bill is on the list of those open to debate this week.
The chamber's influence has not gone unnoticed.
"They're definitely a player up here," said Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita, a member of the House Insurance Committee, which held hearings on the bill before it was sent to the budget committee.
Dillmore called the bill "a tempest in a teapot," adding that some legislators feel the chamber has overstepped its bounds.
"They're a good force for Kansas, they really are," he said. "But sometimes they get in a hurry in their tactics and their strategies. This is a bill that's being purely driven by national corporate interests - not Kansas' best interests."
Attempts to reach Rep. Eric Carter, R-Overland Park, the bill's key supporter in the House, were unsuccessful.
Earlier this year, Rep. Candy Ruff, D-Leavenworth, backed a bill aimed at making Wal-Mart spend more on its employees' health insurance. The House Insurance Committee allowed the bill to die without a hearing.
Ruff said she'll vote against the asbestos bill.
"Let me get this straight," Ruff said, "we don't have time for a bill that would have told Wal-Mart to quit dumping its employees' health insurance on the state? But we do have time for a bill that as far as anybody knows doesn't affect anybody in Kansas? I don't think so."