Closing arguments in the nation's largest asbestos trial were punctuated by accusations that the asbestos industry ignored health warnings linking asbestos products with lung cancer and asbestosis, a crippling lung disease.
Speaking before a standing-room-only audience yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, lawyers for the plaintiffs said asbestos manufacturers and installers had been aware that asbestos posed a health risk since 1938.
Ronald L. Motley, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said: "This is a case of such enormous wrong-doing, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. These defendants were supposed to be experts on asbestos and they became what? Experts on excuses."
Mr. Motley accused the companies of failing to warn workers that exposure to dust kicked up when asbestos is disturbed could cause disease and "miserable, horrible, suffocating death."
On hand for yesterday's hearing were dozens of plaintiffs in the case, many of them elderly men, some displaying shortness of breath when moving about. Mr. Motley occasionally gestured toward the spectators' gallery when describing their suffering.
"Can you imagine a worse thing than that, to be exposed to asbestos fibers and not even know it? It's like a thief in the night," Mr. Motley said. "Asbestos robbed these men daily of their lungs."
Edward F. Houff, a lawyer for GAF Corp., one of the six defendants remaining in the case, countered that 50-year-old studies linking respiratory ailments to the inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers applied only to textile workers, not to shipyard and steel mill employees. These two categories make up half of the more than 8,500 plaintiffs in the massive, four-month trial.
Fourteen firms originally were named as defendants. Eight firms have settled with the plaintiffs, leaving six firms in the court battle.
Mr. Houff asked the jury not to assume that the plaintiffs have a sound case because the group is so large. In fact, said Mr. Houff, the "consolidated" claim should be rejected because the plaintiffs have not presented enough evidence to show they share "common issues."
"Just as it is unfair to lump all the defendants into one big heap, it is unfair to say all the plaintiffs are alike," Mr. Houff told the jury. He also said the jurors deserved a "reality check" after hearing the plaintiffs' version of the history of asbestos-related medical studies.
Mr. Houff said studies linking asbestos-related diseases to the shipbuilding industry were not medically accepted until the late 1960s. He added that factors such as cigarette smoking among the workers hindered medical experts' attempts to study the link between exposure to asbestos and respiratory diseases.
The first phase of the case, centering on whether the six companies remaining as defendants sold products while realizing they posed a health risk, may go to the jury later this week.