Asbestos trial adjourns next comes defense Plaintiffs' lawyers finish 9 days early

April 23, 1992|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

Attorneys representing the 8,600 plaintiffs in the nation's largest consolidated asbestos personal injury trial finished presenting their case in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday -- nine days ahead of schedule.

The trial will resume May 4 for a scheduled 32 days of testimony from the defense. Everyone was looking forward to the break.

"I'm going away on Saturday and I'm not going to tell anyone where I am," said Judge Marshall A. Levin, who has frequently found himself caught in the middle of attorneys' battles. "I think the trial has gone extremely well except for certain volcanic interruptions."

The plaintiffs claim to have developed asbestos-related cancers and respiratory disease after exposure to airborne asbestos while working in shipyards and steel mills.

The trial represents the nation's largest consolidation of asbestos personal injury claims. One attorney described it as a "state-of-the-art, mass-disaster trial."

Peter G. Angelos, a Baltimore lawyer representing more than 90 percent of the plaintiffs, said his team had presented all its evidence and did not need another nine days. The judge had given each side 32 days to present testimony to the jury.

"The case has progressed very favorably for us, and we think we've been received well by the jury," Mr. Angelos said.

Since the trial began in mid-February, three of the 14 defendants have settled. The remaining 11 firms have so many lawyers that it is not unusual to see 20 of them gather around the judge during bench conferences.

Yesterday, amid heated objections, plaintiffs' attorney Ronald L. Motley -- at times referring to God and the Bible -- told the jury that asbestos companies stood silent as they sold a lethal product that allegedly killed hordes of industrial workers.

"It's a simple and fundamental wrong. . . . They wronged other human beings by selling something that they knew would hurt people. They knew the horrible truth about asbestos, but they stood silent," Mr. Motley said.

He and the other plaintiffs' attorneys have presented hundreds of documents and witnesses -- ample evidence, they said, that the defendants sold products while realizing that they posed a health risk for workers.

The quest for profits spurred the companies to continue producing asbestos even after studies as far back as the 1930s clearly showed it to cause respiratory diseases, Mr. Motley said.

"My people were powerless. They could not avoid invisible asbestos dust," he told the jury. "You can stop these corporations. That's what punitive damages are all about."

In illustrating the impact of asbestos and the diseases it can cause, the plaintiffs have presented the jury with six case studies of men who developed lung cancer; mesothelioma, an always fatal cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen; and asbestosis, a crippling lung disease.

The six case studies are of Ira Russell; Lawrence Leaf; Thomas Godwin, 78; Leggette McNeil, 73; Paul Cannamuchio, 64; and William Kawal, 64.

Of the six, Mr. Russell and Mr. Leaf are dead and Mr. McNeil is on a respirator at Union Memorial Hospital.

Attorney Edward Houff, who represents five of the firms being sued, said many of those men had admitted physical problems, such as heart conditions, obesity and other ailments that may have contributed to their ill health.

What's more, Mr. Houff said, several of the men were long-time smokers.

"The question is, what is the cause of those injuries?" he asked the jury, in reference to their current health problems.

In some cases, he said, perhaps it is simply old age that is making the men suffer. In the case of Mr. Godwin, he said, "his exposure to asbestos ended almost 50 years ago" and he smoked for 59 years.

"Nobody lives forever, and he's an elderly gentleman," Mr. Houff said. "And there's not much anybody can do about that."

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