Circuit Court Faces Huge Asbestos Trial

November 08, 1990|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

The potential jurors, 250 in all, will descend upon the courthouse in two waves. They'll find the courtroom furniture has been rearranged and court dockets have been shuffled, all to accommodate a case of unprecedented scope.

State of Maryland v. Keene Corp. et al, a mammoth, six-year-old civil suit wherein the state seeks to recoup the cost of cleaning asbestos from 200 of its buildings, goes to trial today. The disruption to the courthouse routine is expected to be significant.

Robert G. Wallace, county courts administrator, said, "It's going to have a negative impact on the court, our ability to function. How severe?

We'll just have to monitor it."

The trial, which could involve 100 witnesses, is expected to last anywhere from two to six months. Up to $17 million could be on the line.

The case may be the largest of its type in the country to go to trial, said Janet E. LaBella, the assistant attorney general in charge of the state's case. But if the case seems like a behemoth now, consider what might have been. When the state filed its suit in in 1984, it named 48 companies dealing in or with asbestos as defendants and it noted that any of the state's 3,000 buildings built between 1955 and 1971 could contain asbestos.

The state charged the companies knew or should have known about the health hazards of asbestos when they sold the material for installation in state buildings. If inhaled, asbestos fibers can cause asbestosis, a breath-impairing lung disease, or lung cancer.

In the past six years, most of the defendants have either settled their cases or have gone bankrupt. Last year the remainder of the cases were split and two trials were scheduled. The first trail, scheduled for June, was canceled when the parties settled, leaving three defendants to fight the state at the trial that starts today.

The numbers and the issues were whittled down during 18 months of hearings at the old Dorsey Elementary School, which was converted into a temporary courthouse. There, three Circuit Court masters were hired to sift through the case and rule on issues, including identifying the manufacturers of asbestos found in different buildings and deciding whether the state's claims for asbestos abatement costs were reasonable.

At the trial, the state will seek to prove the remaining defendants were negligent in knowingly selling asbestos for use in 33 state buildings. In addition to compensation for the abatement costs, the state will seek reimbursement for related medical training and monitoring and will seek punitive damages against the companies.

The three defendants -- U.S. Gypsum, Asbestospray and National Gypsum -- are expected to base at least part of their case on a "comparative risk assessment" that shows exposure to asbestos may not be any more harmful than behaviors such as smoking a single cigarette. The defense is also expected to argue that the state should not be reimbursed for its abatement costs because it might have been safer to leave the material undisturbed.

The defense will also argue that if anyone should have known better than to use asbestos in the buildings it was the state, which declared asbestosis an occupational disease in the 1930s.

A 12-member jury -- and another 12 alternates -- will be selected tomorrow to hear the case. The expected length of the trial required some unusual methods to impanel a jury.

About 3,000 letters were sent to names selected from the voters list to find 250 who would be able to spend a few months on a jury. Jurors are paid $15 a day.

Questionnaires were sent last week to the 250 prospective jurors to give lawyers in the case a head start on selecting a jury. Court officials have arranged for two shifts of potential jurors today -- 150 of them will report this morning and the other 100 will call in to see if they must come in in the afternoon.

On a normal day 75 to 10 jurors are called in to handle all the jury trials in the Circuit Court's eight courtrooms. The highest number of jurors called in for a single case in recent years was 150 for a death penalty murder case, said Norma Ford, county jury commissioner.

Wallace said the furniture would be rearranged in Judge Raymond G.

Thieme Jr.'s, courtroom No. 1, with extra tables brought in for the three teams of defense lawyers. The greatest affect the trial will have on the Circuit Court operation is the loss of Judge Thieme, who will be assigned to hear the asbestos trial four days a week until its conclusion.

Thieme's courtroom is among the busiest in the courthouse. He does everything but hang a no-loitering sign to keep the parade of hearings, arraignments and pleas moving at a brisk pace.

Wallace said the criminal and civil dockets will be shuffled to compensate for Thieme being tied up most of the week.

"We don't have more judges than we need. There's going to be some pressure on the others," Wallace said.

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