After spending years in preparation and millions of dollars in legal fees and expenses, the untimely death of a major witness Monday night forced city lawyers to postpone a massive asbestos liability trial that was scheduled to begin Tuesday in Baltimore Circuit Court.
William A. "Andy" Gieseking, the city's asbestos coordinator since 1988, was scheduled to be the city's first witness and was expected to testify for at least 30 days in the case, which was expected to last more than four months.
His death from a heart attack, at age 51, left the city's legal team with a huge problem.
"We were shocked by Mr. Gieseking's death. He was an extraordinary individual who gave the city 150 percent effort. He worked hard for the city both in his position and in his assisting in this lawsuit," said Carl E. Tuerk Jr., a partner with the firm of Cooper, Beckman and Tuerk, the private attorneys retained by the city to litigate the case.
The case, filed in September 1984 and seeking $225 million in damages, alleged that several dozen companies that made building products were negligent in failing to disclose that their products containing asbestos installed in city buildings were potentially hazardous.
The city is trying to recover the cost of removing asbestos from its buildings. It asserted in the suit that the companies should pay for cleaning and removing the asbestos.
To date, the city has spent more than $7 million in legal fees and expenses in pursuing the case.
On Tuesday morning, lawyers for the six defendant companies and the city were prepared to select jurors for the trial. Several hundred Baltimoreans summoned to the court for jury selection were dismissed when the lawyers found out that Mr. Gieseking had died.
Judge Joseph I. Pines, after consulting with attorneys, rescheduled the case for Jan. 20.
Mr. Gieseking's death will not undermine the city's case, said Mr. Tuerk, who added that the city's legal team is selecting another witness to replace him. "We are doing the necessary things so we will be able to go to trial in January," he said.
Defense lawyers for the six manufacturers will need to take depositions from the new witness or witnesses, which may require weeks.
The suit that was scheduled to go to trial is actually the first of three asbestos trials involving the city. This suit, which seeks about $18 million in damages, was against the manufacturers of acoustical plaster and spray fireproofing.
The second, which is scheduled for trial in September 1992 is against the manufacturers of thermal insulation for pipes and boilers, and the third is for the manufacturers of vinyl flooring.
Although the city hopes to recover a large amount of money as a result of the lawsuits, similar litigation has not met with much success in Maryland.
An Anne Arundel County jury found in February that three asbestos manufacturers were not liable for the $17 million cost of removing the hazardous material from 29 state buildings. At issue in the case were two products -- acoustical ceiling plaster and spray fireproofing.
The state case, which was filed by former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, had asked for $500 million in damages from 48 asbestos manufacturers to help pay the costs of removing asbestos from 3,000 state-owned buildings.
At the time, it was considered a landmark case. Maryland had gained the reputation for being a national leader in tackling asbestos hazards in publicly-owned buildings and trying to recoup the costs from the manufacturers.