Jury hears opening statements from city, firms in asbestos trial

January 22, 1992|By Alisa Samuels

Opening statements began in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday in an $18 million lawsuit Baltimore has filed against five firms that provided asbestos products that were used in city buildings.

Stanley J. Levy, an attorney for the city, told the jury that the 7-year-old case may seem complex, but it's actually a simple one.

Mr. Levy asked the jury to ponder whether the firms acted responsibly when they installed the asbestos products.

The inhalation of tiny asbestos fibers has been linked to lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, a rare and always fatal cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen.

Asbestos is fire resistant and it was widely used for thermal and acoustical insulation in buildings until its use was banned by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The suit covers asbestos products that were used in 33 city-owned buildings.

"They [the firms] didn't do what they should have done," Mr. Levy said.

The defendants are United States Gypsum Co., Asbestos Spray Corp., Charles Pfizer and Co. Inc., Hampshire Industries Inc. and United States Mineral Co.

Lawyers for the defendants said the city knew of the potential danger posed by asbestos and still insisted that the asbestos-materials be installed.

The defendants' lawyers also said the health dangers associated with asbestos exposure were not widely known when the products were installed many years ago.

George A. Nilson, a lawyer for U.S. Gypsum Co., said the city must prove that his client acted negligently. If the firm is negligent, then so is the the city because it ignored the health risks by ordering the products, Mr. Nilson said.

"There were no secrets [about the health risks associated with asbestos]," Mr. Nilson said.

Mr. Nilson said his client's asbestos containing products were safe when installed 20 to 30 years ago and they continue to be safe today. He said the products do not pose a health risk because they contain low levels of asbestos.

Another defense lawyer, Mr. Thomas McDonough, an attorney for Asbestos Spray, said the key "is who knew what when."

The city has spent $12 million in removing products from the buildings. It wants the companies to pay for the abatement and cleaning in 24 city schools, two library branches and one fire truck company building. Other buildings involved are the men's and women's detention centers, a city recreation center, police headquarters and the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse.

In September 1984, the city filed a $225 million lawsuit charging several dozen companies with negligence for failing to disclose the potential danger posed by their asbestos products. No trial date has been set for that trial.

The fibers, Mr. Levy said, if released into the air, pose a potential hazard to people who use and visit the buildings.

Mr. Levy said the companies should have realized the potential threat if they had performed adequate testing.

"If they didn't know, they should have found out before they sold the products," Mr. Levy said.

Opposing attorneys said testing was indeed done.

This case focuses on buildings and not personal injuries.

The trial that began yesterday, in which the city seeks about $18 million in damages, is the first of three asbestos-related trials in the city.

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