Plaintiffs' wives testify in largest asbestos case Injury trial continues in Baltimore court

March 24, 1992|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

The one undisputed fact in the courtroom was that 78-year-old Thomas Godwin had life-threatening lung cancer.

But was it his 59 years of smoking that gave the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. worker the disease, or was it 12 years of exposure to asbestos fibers that, as his wife put it, used to cling to his hair like snow?

Mr. Godwin and his wife testified yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, where 8,555 plaintiffs are suing 13 asbestos insulation manufacturers and distributors.

"In the 1960s, you saw the warnings on the cigarette packs, didn't you? You continued to smoke, didn't you?" Mr. Godwin was asked by defense attorney Edward Houff, who represents five of the firms being sued in the nation's largest asbestos injury trial.

The inhalation of tiny asbestos fibers has been linked to cancer and asbestosis, a crippling lung disease. The plaintiffs claim they incurred asbestos-related diseases while working with asbestos products in steel mills and shipyards.

Mr. Godwin's wife, Mary, who lives with her husband in Middle River, said that when her husband came home in the 1940s, "He would be covered with asbestos. I didn't even know what it was at the time.

"I used to pick it out of his hair," she added. "It was all over his clothes."

Now in its second month, the trial has stirred emotional reactions from witnesses taking the stand to discuss the dead or dying.

In one case, the witness, Richard Gaze of London, England, actually was dead. His deposition, taken 17 years ago in another asbestos-related case, was read aloud.

Mr. Gaze, who died of an asbestos-related disease, attempted to warn large insulation companies that "asbestos was bad stuff," plaintiffs attorney Ronald L. Motley said.

During the 1950s through the 1970s, Mr. Gaze worked as a scientist and executive for Cape Industries, which was one of the chief consultants -- and sellers -- of asbestos products in North America. His posthumous testimony told of warnings he gave to companies.

Mr. Gaze testified that he had a large financial interest in selling asbestos but that he tried to emphasize to buyers that "precautions had to be taken." He also said he told the companies that the material posed "a very serious danger" if misused.

"Our knowledge of this very serious regrettable problem has increased slowly," Mr. Gaze said in the statement, adding that he saw the serious implications of asbestos "on the day I became employed" in the industry.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs yesterday read to the jury the names and illnesses of 72 people who filed personal injury claims against an asbestos firm for asbestos-related injuries. It took 10 minutes to read the names -- a symbolic gesture to highlight the fact that the trial is expected to last four months.

The plaintiffs' attorneys showed slides of Mr. Godwin and his grandchildren, and made him recount his love of fishing, hunting and gardening, all of which he said his health no longer permits.

"I can't even walk from here to the sidewalk, that's how bad I'm getting," he said.

Another Bethlehem Steel worker, Legett McNeil, was unable to testify yesterday allegedly because of respiratory problems caused by asbestosis.

His wife, Geneva McNeil, said she regrets her husband's decision many years ago to leave their small town in South Carolina to move to Baltimore.

"He came here to work in the factory because he wanted a good-paying job," she said. "But I wish now that I had begged him to stay in South Carolina to work on a farm or something."

During opening arguments, attorneys for the plaintiffs said the companies knew that asbestos exposure had been linked to health problems. They are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Defense attorneys said the asbestos industry knew high-level exposure was potentially hazardous, but thought the products were safe as long as exposure was limited to exposure standards condoned by the U.S. government and the medical community.

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