Companies delay asbestos awards Post-trial motions stall payoffs for 14 months-no end yet.

August 13, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

When his lawyer told him that a jury had awarded him $690,000 in his case against two asbestos makers, Kenneth Perkins thought he might actually see that money. That was more than a year ago.

Now he's not so sure. The $690,000 award, part of an $11 million settlementwith 10 shipyard workers, is still tied up after a year in post-trial motions in city Circuit Court.

Once Judge John Carroll Byrnes rules on those motions, possibly in September, the defendants can begin an appeal of the case.

Even if the award stands after the post-trial motions and the almost-inevitable appeal, Perkins, who turned 78 yesterday, will face the onerous task of actually getting the money from the Manville Corp. Asbestos Disease Compensation Fund and Celotex Corp., which filed for bankruptcy four months after the trial.

It is not uncommon for appeals and new trials to drag out the amount of time asbestos victims wait for their money. But this case, one of the last tried before a massive consolidation of asbestos suits, is unusual in that it hasn't even reached the point of appeal.

One of the plaintiffs, Stanley Ball, has died since the verdict was returned June 7, 1990. Shepard Hoffman, the lead attorney in the case, is unhappily resigned to the fact that, given the health and age of his clients, others may die before they see their money.

Celotex's bankruptcy and the ongoing litigation over the Manville trust fund are moving through federal courts at "a snail's pace," Hoffman said.

"It's more likely than not that others will pass away," he said. "Even when all is said and done [in the Maryland courts], these people's rights for payment are all going to be held up."

Because of Celotex's bankruptcy, which resulted in a stay order, Manville is the only defendant left in a case that started two years ago with seven manufacturers. The others settled, and Byrnes says he has repeatedly urged Manville to settle.

On Sept. 27, 1990, Manville's attorneys asked the judge to rule on several requests, most of which are technical. But the primary motion asks Byrnes to either reduce the verdict or order a new trial.

While post-trial motions in such cases normally take two to four weeks, Hoffman said, that length of time has been drawn out by Byrnes' request for a summary of the facts, to be agreed upon by both sides.

"It concerns me this matter has taken this long," Byrnes said. "But I have an enormous workload. I have set two dates and they have stipulated they need more time. I would go through the roof if anyone suggested this delay was my fault."

Harry Goldman, another attorney for the plaintiffs, has suggested just that. "This delay is unprecedented and may well be a major source of Mr. Perkins' anguish," Goldman said.

Byrnes replied that, should other plaintiffs die before the lawsuit is resolved, "that's on their [the attorneys'] conscience." He also said the delays, to date, have been the fault of the plaintiffs' attorneys, not the defendants.

"It ought to be mentioned that asbestos cases have no special priority under the Constitution," Byrnes added. "It is true that individual plaintiffs are suffering, but it is the same fate as any plaintiff who is elderly and ill. We have been very sensitive to these cases in Baltimore."

Of the 10 men who sued, eight were well enough to testify: Perkins, Harold Adams, William Beeks, Crocket Brewster, George Farmer and George Foster, all of Baltimore; and Ronald Cox and Ned Staton, both of North Carolina.

Ball, who died after the verdict, was on an oxygen machine and could not testify. The 10th man, Hastings Campbell, also was too ill to testify during the monthlong trial.

The case was notable not so much because of its award, which totaled $11,265,000, but because it was the last such case to be tried before the city courts consolidated all asbestos cases. This case was a so-called cluster case, in which people who worked at similar locations were grouped together for the purpose of the trial.

All 10 had worked at various shipyards, although in different jobs. Perkins, a welder, says he worked there from 1936 through 1945, then joined the Army. He ended up staying until 1973, when he retired as a warrant officer.

Perkins was not in court the day the jury returned its verdict. Called at home, he jokingly asked: "Well, do I get it tomorrow?" Perhaps in a few months, he was advised.

Now, more than a year later, Perkins despairs of living long enough to collect any money.

"People say, you look good for 78, but they don't know how bad I feel," said Perkins, a dapper, cheerful man who works as a private process server, delivering summonses for $35 apiece.

"I put on a good front, I try to," he said. "But if I walk to the end of the driveway, I'm out of breath."

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