Jury out on city's asbestos claims City suing 3 firms for cost of asbestos removal in schools.

May 27, 1992|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

After four months of trial, a Baltimore Circuit Court jury has begun deliberations in the city's lawsuit seeking $18 million-plus to pay for removal of asbestos from its schools, libraries, jails, police headquarters and recreation centers.

The attorneys completed their closing arguments yesterday and, as they cheerfully gathered the hundreds of court exhibits, predicted a wait for a verdict of at least two days. Judge Joseph I. Pines called back the jury foreman to discuss plans for Friday.

This case represents only the first third of the city's suit alleging negligence, breach of warranty and other actions by asbestos manufacturers, sellers and installers. Attorneys for the city say the defendants knew since the 1930s of the material's cancer-causing properties, and, as experts in the field, were negligent.

Defense attorneys for the United States Gypsum Co. of Chicago, Asbestospray Corp. of New Jersey and Hampshire Industries Inc. of Baltimore disagreed that the dangers were known then. They said the city is guilty of contributory negligence, too, because it was aware of studies questioning the use of asbestos -- and even listed asbestosis as a disease in 1930.

"The central irony of this case is that we are being sued for selling a product which is precisely what the city asked for: an asbestos-containing fireproofing," said Thomas McDonough for Asbestospray, in his closing argument yesterday.

George A. Nilson, attorney for United States Gypsum, told the jury last week that his client mixed fireproofing to others' specifications, and the city was offered a non-asbestos material in 1970 and rejected it.

Robert Lynott, representing Hampshire Industries, also made his closing argument last week, characterizing his client as a contractor following the building owner's specifications.

This phase of the city's lawsuit involves sprayed-on fireproofing, plaster and ceiling tiles installed until 1971, said Carl Tuerk, one of its attorneys. The city's claims involving pipe and boiler covering, then floor tiles, get separate trials later.

The city has spent about $10 million already -- including almost $8 million for Walbrook Senior High School-- for asbestos removal, he said, and has an estimated $10 million more on its priority list.

In addition to seeking to recover its actual costs, Mr. Tuerk said, the city is seeking punitive damages from United States Gypsum and Asbestospray. A similar claim against Hampshire was thrown out in midtrial.

The city previously reached a settlement with four other defendants, he said, but he refused to discuss the terms.

"A lot is riding on this case regarding what the city can do in the future regarding these buildings, as well as others," said Stanley Levy, whose New York firm also is representing the mayor and City Council in the asbestos cases. "The city owns 1,079 buildings [with] asbestos found in 709, [and] 25 are at issue in this case."

"Is there risk for people in these buildings? Yes, there is," said VTC Mr. Levy in his closing argument. With no safe level of exposure to asbestos, he told the jury, "this a serious lawsuit: a deadly serious lawsuit."

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