The 13 asbestos manufacturers who are defendants in the nation's largest asbestos trial knew their products were toxic to workers, but covered up the danger out of greed, attorneys for the plaintiffs said in opening statements yesterday at a trial in Baltimore Circuit Court.
"We will prove to you that the manufacturers decided profits were more important than the health of human beings," attorney Peter G. Angelos told the jury. Mr. Angelos represents the majority of the nearly 8,600 plaintiffs.
Most of the plaintiffs worked for 25 to 40 years in Maryland steel mills and shipyards where they were exposed to asbestos and developed asbestos-related illnesses, Mr. Angelos said.
The diseases were "preventable," Ronald L. Motley, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said in his opening statement.
Mr. Motley said top-level officials at the companies were aware of the dangers because of studies, doctors' testimonies and lawsuits filed by their own employees.
But instead of publicizing the health risks, Owen-Corning Fiberglass Corp., for example, described its asbestos material, Kaylo, as "non-toxic," Mr. Motley said.
"If this is not malicious, evil-motivated, unconscionable, punishable conduct, I don't know what is," he said.
"How many people have got to die before they take a product off the market?" Mr. Motley asked.
Heavy exposure to asbestos fibers has been linked to cancer and asbestosis, a crippling lung disease.
The jury will have to decide whether the products were defective and if the companies knew it. The jurors will be asked to return compensatory damages, and if they finds the defendants negligent and liable, they will be asked to return punitive damages.
The plaintiffs' attorneys will finish their opening statements today and attorneys for the defendants will begin theirs.
Each side will have two months to present its case during the trial.
Only six cases will be tried. They involve men who developed lung cancer, asbestosis or mesothelioma.
The six are Ira Russell, 69; Lawrence Leaf, 62; Thomas Godwin, 78; Leggette McNeil, 73; Paul Cannamuchio, 64; and William Kawal, 64.
Mr. Russell and Mr. Leaf are dead. Mr. McNeil is on a respirator at Union Memorial Hospital.
The other three sat in the packed courtroom with their families.
Peter Nicholl, an attorney for Mr. Cannamuchio, said his client will testify that his work site was inundated with asbestos fibers.
"He'll tell you it looked like it was snowing inside," Mr. Nicholl said.
The plaintiffs' attorneys told the jury that the defendants will say they didn't know about the dangers.
Mr. Angelos said that is no defense because the companies were obligated to conduct tests and find out.
Last week, one defendant, Fibreboard Corp., reached out-of-court settlements with all the plaintiffs.
Another defendant, Owens-Illinois, settled with all but 200 to 300 plaintiffs. The details of the settlements weren't disclosed.
The other defendants are AC&S Inc.; Armstrong World Industries Inc.; GAF Corp.; National Gypsum Co.; Keene Corp.; MCIC; Owens-Corning; Pittsburgh Corning Corp.; Porter-Hayden Co.; Quigley Co.; U.S. Gypsum Co.; and W.R. Grace & Co.