Litigation goes in style in largest asbestos case Lawyers split cost of furniture for courtroom.

July 05, 1991|By Raymond L. Sanchez | Raymond L. Sanchez,Evening Sun Staff

The nation's biggest asbestos personal-injury trial -- a six-month legal war involving dozens of lawyers -- will be fought in comfort.

Preparing for its start, teams of lawyers originally moved from one of Baltimore Circuit Court's modern courtrooms in the Courthouse East to a spacious, 91-year-old courtroom across Calvert Street in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse.

Then they sat -- for hours -- on hard wooden seats.

In discomfort, the combatants came together. They agreed to split the $12,000 bill to rent 50 beige upholstered chairs with comfortable armrests, a dozen huge trial tables and a brand new witness box.

Edward F. Houff, who represents one of 10 manufacturers of asbestos products, said the arrangement was the only way to ensure comfort and efficiency in a financially strapped court system.

"The furniture was antiquated and inadequate," he said. "It was not conducive to comfort and attentiveness during a long trial. And it was clear that the court system was unable to expend the money necessary to make the facility adequate for trial."

The other day, several of the lawyers sank into their new chairs and swiveled from side to side. Some of them, however, admitted that the redecorating was a bit overdone.

"It's not necessary," plaintiffs' lawyer Harry Goldman Jr. said. "It's a little plush."

Plaintiffs' lawyer David L. Palmer said both sides have shared other costs, including the printing of jury questionnaires and daily copies of the court transcript.

The lawyers resorted to name-calling during hearings last month, and their agreement on the furniture is not expected to carry into other areas.

"We're warring on the legal and factual issues," Palmer said.

Everything about this trial has been unusual. It has been billed as the largest asbestos trial -- 9,032 claims -- in U.S. history. There have been problems storing the mounds of documents generated by the more than 40 lawyers. And last month, Judge Marshall A. Levin dismissed 51 potential jurors after the defense mistakenly faxed profiles of the jury panel to the plaintiffs.

"The unusual has become the usual," Palmer said.

Houff said the lawyers have not figured exactly how the furniture costs, which include storage for the courtroom's old furniture, will be split.

Court officials picked up the tab for minor improvements to the sound system and for extending the jury box to accommodate eight alternate jurors, he said.

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