Mass tort cases: a legal nightmare Lawyer Angelos reigns as 'king of asbestos'

October 07, 1990|By Graeme Browning

Lawyer Peter Angelos has 11,000 clients nationwide with asbestos claims. Last Monday he was named to represent tens of thousands more. Already the canny former city councilman knows what a reporter's first question is going to be.

"So, you want to know how much money we're going to make from all this?," he said patiently, a slight smile playing across his face. "Well, the truth is, a significant amount."

In the 12 years since he filed his first asbestos-related lawsuits, for members of United Steelworkers Local 2610, Mr. Angelos has gone from being, in his own words, "a member of a modest-sized plaintiffs' law firm" to a force to be reckoned with on an issue that has national repercussions.

Once the whiz kid of Baltimore politics -- he was elected to the City Council when he was only 30 -- Mr. Angelos is now a member of a seven-lawyer panel renegotiating terms for the bankrupt $2.5 billion Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein of New York appointed Mr. Angelos to help settle 64,000 pending asbestos claims against Eagle-Picher Industries Inc., a major Cincinnati-based asbestos manufacturer.

Mr. Angelos' law firm has grown from one office to 10 offices across Maryland and in three other states. Where he once worked with eight other lawyers, he now works with 50. On a list of Baltimore's top law firms, "The Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos" ranks right behind such blue-chip names as Smith, Somerville & Case, and Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander.

Some Baltimore lawyers, to put it mildly, begrudge Mr. Angelos his success.

"Angelos! He's killing the circuit court system," said one, requesting anonymity and referring to the fact that Mr. Angelos represents 90 percent of the 4,000 asbestos lawsuits now pending in Baltimore Circuit Court.

"He's the unions' man. He does what they say," said another, who also asked not to be identified. Mr. Angelos represents almost 8,500 union members, primarily from the building and construction trades and the steel workers' unions, in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

"It was hard for anybody to take him seriously until he became the 'king of asbestos,' " a noted trial lawyer said. "Now it's hard not to take him seriously."

Born in Pittsburgh the son of a Greek immigrant steel worker who spoke little English, Mr. Angelos moved with his family to Baltimore in 1940, when he was 11. He joined the Army at 17, and when his tour ended he returned to help his father run a family-owned restaurant and realty company.

He ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 1958, at age 29, and for mayor of Baltimore -- also unsuccessfully -- in 1967. In the meantime, he earned a law degree from Mount Vernon School of Law and passed the bar.

In 1978, Dr. James Keogh of Mercy Hospital, examining steel workers from Local 2610 for retirement benefits, detected several cases of asbestosis, Mr. Angelos said. The union asked Mr. Angelos, who represented it in other matters, to interview members for possible legal claims against Bethlehem Steel Co.

"I really didn't want to get involved in it," he says. "I was spending all my time in the courtroom then. I had a small firm. I didn't want to have to deal with all that administrative stuff, like you have with a big operation. But they insisted."

Within six months, Mr. Angelos and his partners had filed between 300 and 400 asbestos lawsuits. In the years that followed, the local Building and Construction Trades Council began an asbestos screening program for its members, and Mr. Angelos' client list boomed.

The story circulates among Baltimore lawyers that Mr. Angelos collected clients by attending union meetings with a portable X-ray machine in tow, signing up asbestos sufferers on the spot.

"That is absolutely a lie. That's insurance company propaganda," he said. "We used a mobile screening van once, for the pipefitters local in Harrisburg, Pa. That's it."

If the courts are choked with asbestos cases, he said, the solution is to hire more judges. "We're quite capable of building a $200 million stadium here to play baseball in," he said. "How come society can't afford to give its citizens effective and timely justice?"

As for that impertinent first question, Mr. Angelos said his firm typically takes 30 percent of an asbestos award as its fee. Judge Weinstein will knock that amount down to 20 percent in the Eagle-Picher settlements, he said.

Even at 20 percent, if the average award is $80,000 and Mr. Angelos represents 11,000 claims, that would mean total awards of $880 million and a $176 million share for Mr. Angelos' firm.

Could that be true? Mr. Angelos smiled and said, "Let's just say I decline to make an estimate."

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