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New Illinois law helps workers with latent illness from asbestos

On May 17, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed SB 1596, a bill that gives employees who developed work-related diseases that did not manifest until 25 years had passed from exposure to asbestos or radiation the right to file a civil lawsuit against their employers for the harm.

If such an illness develops before 25 years from exposure have passed, the worker must file for workers’ compensation benefits because that is the exclusive remedy.

Normally, workers’ compensation is the exclusive, only legal remedy against an employer for a work-related injury or occupational disease. This has been called the “grand bargain” of workers’ compensation — that an injured worker will always have the remedy of workers’ compensation benefits no matter whose fault a work injury or disease is and in exchange, the employee cannot sue the employer, with very narrow exception.

Before the new law, the Illinois Supreme Court had held in the case of Folta v. Ferro Engineering that if a disease from exposure to asbestos did not manifest until after 25 years from exposure to the toxic substance, Illinois law did not provide a legal remedy.

It is well known that such diseases may take decades to develop. For example, asbestos exposure can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer of the lining around the lungs or other organs) or asbestosis (lung scarring) many years later. Significantly delayed illnesses that radiation exposure can cause include cancers or heart disease.

The new law, which after signing became Illinois Public Act 101-6, mitigates the unfairness of the situation for workers who develop these diseases after 25 years (or to their spouses or dependents if the worker dies from these diseases after 25 years). According to the Illinois Bar Journal, the law “legislatively overrule[d]” the Folta case when it took effect on May 17 by allowing these victims to file a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit in state courts.