Owens-Corning settles in mammoth asbestos trial 10 defendants remain Closing arguments begin tomorrow

July 05, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

With closing arguments in the nation's largest asbestos personal injury trial scheduled to begin tomorrow in Baltimore Circuit Court, a major defendant in the case has reached a settlement agreement with all of the plaintiffs.

Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. agreed last week to a legal procedure that would allow it to settle claims made by 8,555 plaintiffs in the consolidated case.

A lawyer representing most of those plaintiffs said he expects to reach more settlements with the remaining 10 defendants before the jury begins to deliberate, following closing arguments that are expected to last a week.

Still, attorney Peter G. Angelos said, "I believe a number of the defendants will go to the jury."

Owens-Corning last week became the fourth company to settle its cases with plaintiffs claiming asbestos-related ailments.

When the trial began in mid-February, 14 companies were defending themselves against charges that they failed to warn workers about the health risks associated with asbestos products.

Most plaintiffs have claims against the remaining defendants. Commenting on the impact of the Owens-Corning settlement, presiding Judge Marshall A. Levin said: "It makes the trial more manageable, but you still have 10 defendants."

Thus, traffic jams will continue to form when lawyers gather around the judge during bench conferences.

Owens-Corning has reached a "settlement-processing agreement" that requires plaintiffs' attorneys to recommend the offer to their clients, but leaves acceptance or rejection in the hands of the individual plaintiffs, said Kristine Crosswhite, an attorney representing the company.

She and other attorneys in the case, including Mr. Angelos, who represents more than 90 percent of the plaintiffs, refused to discuss any terms of the settlement agreement, which was not placed on the public record.

The inhalation of tiny asbestos fibers has been linked to cancer and asbestosis, a crippling lung disease.

The plaintiffs claim to have developed these and similar ailments after exposure to airborne asbestos while working in shipyards and steel mills. They are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have presented hundreds of documents in hopes of convincing the jury that the defendants sold products while realizing they posed a health risk.

The defense has sought to show the asbestos industry's products were not unreasonably dangerous and carried adequate warnings.

Accommodations made for the unusually large and time-consuming case have included everything from installing more comfortable chairs for jurors and witnesses to imposing time limits on the lawyers presenting their cases.

Also, in an effort to help jurors understand the issues of the case, Judge Levin has instructed them on the difference between "trial plaintiffs" and "common-issues plaintiffs."

The trial plaintiffs -- presented to "inject the human factor," Mr. Angelos said -- include six men who developed ailments ranging from lung cancer to asbestosis to mesothelioma, an always-fatal cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen. Of the six, two are dead and one was on a hospital respirator.

Defense attorneys have attempted to undercut the men's emotional testimony by suggesting that other habits, such as smoking, may have contributed to their ailments.

A four-step method has been designed for the jury to settle the issues in the case, Judge Levin said. After hearing arguments that begin tomorrow, the jury will decide which if any companies should be held liable for the plaintiffs' injuries.

Only if the jury finds any of the companies at fault will the trial proceed. The jury would hear arguments regarding the trial plaintiffs and then deliberate as in a traditional liability case, deciding whether the men have asbestos-related diseases and, if so, how they got them and whether the companies should be held at fault.

In the third phase, lawyers would present additional arguments before the jury would consider whether punitive damages should be assessed against any of the companies. Finally, the jury would hear evidence on the worth of the applicable companies to guide them in determining a formula for assigning punitive damages.

That formula would be used by juries in "mini-trials" that would be held in the city and surrounding counties to determine what actual damages are due to the common-issues plaintiffs -- all of the plaintiffs except the six trial plaintiffs.

In another development last week, the state Court of Special Appeals struck down a gag order issued by Judge Levin against one of the defendants, the Keene Corp.

DTC The order was issued after the plaintiffs complained that Keene, in full-page newspaper ads in areas where other asbestos suits have been filed, was attempting to influence the cases.

Other defendants remaining in the suit: Armstrong World Industries Inc.; GAF Corp.; National Gypsum Co.; MCIC; Pittsburgh Corning Corp.; Porter-Hayden Co.; Quigley Co. and U.S. Gypsum.

Defendants W.R. Grace & Co., Owens Illinois Inc. and Fibreboard Corp. have settled with the plaintiffs.

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