The most critical phase of the nation's largest asbestos trial ended yesterday when a Baltimore Circuit Court jury found six companies negligent and liable for failing to warn workers about the potential health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos.
The panel of 10 women and two men deliberated 11 1/2 hours over two days before returning its verdict in favor of the 8,550 plaintiffs in the consolidated case. The jury ruled against all six companies remaining as defendants in the four-month trial.
Peter G. Angelos, the lawyer representing most of the plaintiffs, hailed the verdict as "a giant step toward resolving the claims" of those who "have waited for a decision for years."
The trial is the country's biggest-ever consolidated trial -- a proceeding that combined thousands of personal injury cases to prevent the courts from choking. About 6,000 of the cases were filed in Baltimore. About 3,000 others were contributed by courts in Prince George's, Washington, Allegany and Baltimore counties.
The trial generated almost a million pages of documents and 22,000 pages of transcribed testimony.
During the trial, eight of the companies originally named as defendants reached out-of-court settlements with the plaintiffs. With yesterday's verdict, the potential for settlements between the plaintiffs and the six remaining companies is "substantially enhanced," Mr. Angelos said.
If settlements are not reached, plaintiffs would seek damages in a series of "mini-trials." These hearings would decide damages for individual plaintiffs -- if they can prove that they were exposed to asbestos and that asbestos caused their illnesses. Mr. Angelos said that the plaintiffs would push for speedy trial dates in hopes of resolving all claims within three to five years.
The plaintiffs are mostly shipyard, steel mill and construction workers who worked with asbestos products and claim to suffer from asbestos-related ailments.
While the defense in the trial has objected to the case being consolidated, many of the plaintiffs have been equally unhappy.
"It stinks," Paul Safchuck, president of the White Lung Association, said of the consolidation.
The jury announced it had reached a verdict at 4:35 p.m., while lawyers and presiding Judge Marshall A. Levin were trying to determine the implications of an earlier jury note. The note asked the judge for guidance on cross claims made by defendants who are seeking to spread the liability to two companies that made out-of-court settlements with the plaintiffs.
The six companies found negligent yesterday are: GAF Corp., Keene Corp., Pittsburgh Corning Corp., AC&S Inc., MCIC and Porter-Hayden Co. Defendants that previously settled are: W. R. Grace & Co., Owens Illinois Inc., Fiberboard Corp., Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp., Armstrong World Industries Inc., National Gypsum Co., Quigley Co. and U.S. Gypsum.
Judge Levin ordered the jury to return at 9 a.m. this morning to resume deliberations on "cross claims.
Once that issue is settled, the jury will move to the next phase, which will involve six "trial plaintiffs," whose specific claims were presented during the trial. The jury would then deliberate as in a traditional liability case, deciding whether the six men have asbestos-related diseases and, if so, how, when and where they got them. The jury could then award damages to the men.
In the third phase, lawyers will 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 companies' net worths to guide them in determining a formula for assigning punitive damages if warranted.