Third defendant settles in giant asbestos trial Florida firm sold building materials

April 04, 1992|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

A Florida-based company that formerly supplied asbestos products has made an out-of-court settlement with the plaintiffs in Baltimore's giant asbestos trial, an attorney for the firm said yesterday.

W. R. Grace Co., one of 14 companies named as defendants in the Circuit Court trial, is the third to settle with some or all of the 8,555 plaintiffs who claim they suffered illnesses caused by asbestos.

George C. Doub, an attorney with Venable, Baetjer and Howard who represented W. R. Grace Co. in the case, confirmed that a settlement was reached but would not disclose the terms.

Mr. Doub said that W. R. Grace, based in Boca Raton, Fla., sold chemical and asbestos products between 1950 and 1975, when it was actively involved in the selling of construction materials.

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.

Two other firms, Fibreboard Inc. and Owens-Illinois, reached confidential settlement agreements last month.

The trial, expected to last four months, concluded its seventh week Thursday amid some lively debate between attorneys and Judge Marshall A. Levin.

In Thursday's arguments to the jury, plaintiff's attorney Ronald L. Motley likened the asbestos companies and product users to people who "buy cans of rat poison and keep it around a house where little children can get in it and poison themselves."

Judge Levin ordered the jury to ignore the comment, but not before defense attorneys criticized the judge for his permissiveness in allowing attorneys to make editorialized comments to the jury.

The judge has tried to use creative methods to keep the 19-member jury in tune with the complex legal testimony, and one component of his trial guidelines is to allow opposing attorneys to present a 30-minute "interim argument" once a week.

Similar to opening and closing arguments, in which attorneys have the privilege of stating to the jury their interpretation of the testimony, the interim argument "is a good-sense approach," Judge Levin said.

"I have been criticized for it, because it is unprecedented and it is not traditional," he said. "But this is not a traditional trial. It is very complex and very lengthy. It doesn't make sense to wait until the end of a four-month trial" for attorney's arguments to the jury.

Mr. Motley's comments come during a phase of the trial when the plaintiffs are trying to prove a key element in their case -- namely, that the asbestos manufacturers were fully aware of the dangers of their product but didn't warn the public.

"The law required these companies to do what common sense requires, and that is tell people what they know about the hazards of their products," Mr. Motley told the jury.

Defense lawyers have argued that the companies did not believe exposure to asbestos posed a health risk as long as it was within exposure standards set by the U.S. government.

The asbestos manufacturers and distributors knew exposure to large concentrations of asbestos was dangerous, but thought the manufacture and installation of their products was safe, given proper ventilation, said Edward Houff, the chief defense attorney.

Among those who testified this week was Donna Russell, a resident of Edwards Lane in the city whose father, Ira Russell, died of asbestosis.

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