A Baltimore Circuit Court judge overseeing massive asbestos litigation dismissed yesterday a jury panel painstakingly chosen earlier this month for a trial that had been scheduled to begin Monday.
Judge Marshall Levin took the action after Peter Angelos, attorney for the people claiming to be suffering from diseases caused by working with asbestos, narrowed the number of defendants from more than 130 to 15.
The 15 are AC&S Inc., Armstrong World Industries Inc., GAF Corp., Keene Corp., Fibreboard Corp., Owens-Corning Fibreglas Inc., Owens-Illinois Inc., Pittsburgh Corning Corp., Quigley Co., MCIC Inc., Porter Hayden Co., W. R. Grace Co., United States Gypsum, National Gypsum Co. and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.
Judge Levin delayed the trial until mid-November. The original number of defendants would have made it the largest personal-injury case ever heard in the Maryland courts.
"It was a tradeoff I was willing to make," the judge said in a telephone conversation from a judicial conference in Nevada. "It is very minor price to be paid for the judicial efficiency we will achieve."
Asbestos, which had been used in a variety of industrial and construction applications, has been found to cause a number of different diseases, including cancers and respiratory illnesses. Many of the former asbestos workers who have developed these diseases have sued their former employers and the manufacturers of asbestos products in the hope of recovering damages.
If the case had gone ahead with more that 100 defendants, the result could have been two or three lengthy, time-consuming trials, Judge Levin said.
Lawyers and jurists involved in the asbestos litigation have acknowledged that the plaintiffs might spend years waiting for their cases to be heard, with the possibility that many of them would die before any compensation is decided.
Since last year, Judge Levin has been trying to fashion a method that would consolidate the thousands of asbestos cases that have flooded the Maryland courts in recent years. He had consolidated about 9,000 of the cases and was prepared to conduct what was expected to be a six-month trial starting Monday.
Questions still must be resolved before the Maryland cases go to trial, Judge Levin said, and a special master will be asked to make recommendations regarding these.
Some of the questions involve whether punitive damages for all the defendants should be determined by a formula.
Just this past week, more than 26,000 cases pending in federal courts across the nation were consolidated before Federal District Court Judge Charles R. Weiner in Philadelphia.