A Baltimore Circuit Court judge cleared the way yesterday for what observers say will be the largest mass trial ever held in the United States -- the consolidation of approximately 9,000 asbestos-related personal injury cases that have been pending in courthouses throughout Maryland.
The trial, scheduled for April 29, will decide issues common to those cases and will take anywhere from three to six months to complete.
Similar consolidated mass trials in Texas and Colorado have handled as many as 3,000 plaintiffs at one time. But, according to attorneys Edward F. Houff and Peter G. Angelos, who have closely watched developments in other states, Maryland's consolidated trial will be vastly larger than anything before.
Mr. Angelos said it would combine "the largest number of cases ever consolidated for trial on common issues in the history of litigation in this country."
"The concept is not new," said Mr. Angelos, whose firm represents plaintiffs in about 90 percent of the pending asbestos cases in Maryland. "The approach is one fashioned for situations like this where many, many litigants are waiting for a resolution of their cases."
Judge Marshall A. Levin, who oversees the asbestos docket of more than 5,500 cases in Baltimore Circuit Court and whose rulings yesterday fashioned the framework for the consolidated trial, said the trial "has the potential to break the logjam."
For years, state courts have been overwhelmed by thousands of asbestos-related cases filed by shipyard, steel plant and construction workers. Asbestos was a widely used insulation material that has since been found to be a health hazard.
The mass trial will decide when various asbestos manufacturers knew about or should have known about the dangers of their products, and whether or not they should have to pay punitive damages.
Because of the trial's size, no particular plaintiffs will be represented. However, Judge Levin ruled yesterday that some plaintiffs would be allowed to testify about aspects of their jobs.
Judge Levin also ruled yesterday that the defendants with claims of conspiracy filed against them would have a separate trial to decide that issue.
Once the consolidated trial is completed, the cases will be sent back to their respective jurisdictions for mini-trials in which the juries will decided the individual issues of the cases and compensatory damages.
"The objective is in the consolidated trial, you want to conduct it so that when the mini-trial guy comes along, you don't have to try the whole case over again," said Judge Levin. "Now, that may be easier said than done."
Following the mini-trials, Judge Levin plans to conduct another series of consolidated trials to decide what amount, if any, of punitive damages should be levied against the defendants. This final series of trials will resolve one-quarter of the remaining cases at a time.
"It's a massive undertaking," said Judge Levin. "From now until April 29, the lawyers are going to be busy."
Mr. Houff, who represents a consortium of defendants against whom asbestos plaintiffs have filed suit, said he thought Judge Levin was taking the wrong tack in allowing the consolidated trial to go forward.
"We have maintained all along that this is a trial that cannot be done legally, and that continues to be our position," said Mr. Houff, who does not think the mass trial will lead to a speedy resolution of the cases. "The court has tried to fashion a creative system, but it just doesn't meet the requirements of the law in
our point of view."
Mr. Angelos said he was pleased with Judge Levin's rulings and said the trial would speed up the resolution of asbestos cases.
"There's no question that where cases have been consolidated in other jurisdictions in a similar fashion, cases have been resolved in a more expeditious manner," he said.
Mr. Angelos also said the imminence of the trial could lead to many more out-of-court settlements.
"As the trial date approaches, reasonableness becomes a more current attitude, and cases get settled, and that's another benefit I know Judge Levin is reaching for," he said.