Closing arguments under way in largest U.S. asbestos trial

July 17, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

As the nation's largest asbestos trial entered a new phase yesterday in a Baltimore courtroom, lawyer Ronald Motley delivered a brief pep talk to his clients sitting in the front row.

"Everybody OK?" he asked the men whose cases were profiled during the four-month trial. Affectionately slapping former Bethlehem Steel worker Legette McNeil in the leg, the lawyer asked, "How you doing, boss?"

"Hangin' in there," answered Mr. McNeil, as he breathed through plastic tubes attached to an oxygen tank. He has asbestosis, allegedly caused by exposure to the hazardous substance in the steel mill.

"This is your case today," Mr. Motley told him.

Minutes later, closing arguments began in the "trial plaintiffs" portion of the trial. The jury will weigh the claims of six men -- two of them deceased -- whose cases were presented, in the words of one attorney, to "inject the human factor."

"The testimony in this case is uncontradicted that Ira Russell suffocated to death," Mr. Motley told the jurors. "The testimony is uncontradicted that Mr. McNeil is tied to a breathing machine. Think about being tied to a breathing machine the rest of your life."

The case reached this point only because the plaintiffs crossed the first hurdle, when the jury found the six defendant companies negligent and liable for failing to warn workers about the potential health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos.

That ruling cleared the way for more than 8,500 individuals, claiming to suffer from diseases linked to on-the-job exposure to asbestos, to press for damages.

Like the six trial plaintiffs, the others will have to prove they were exposed to the substance during the time periods the jury ruled the manufacturers and installers were negligent, and they have to prove the exposure was a "substantial factor" in their health problems.

The living trial plaintiffs and their wives sat in a solemn row listening to Judge Marshall A. Levin instruct the jury. Virginia Leaf, widow of former steamfitter Lawrence Leaf, lowered her head when the judge listed funeral costs as recoverable expenses. Later, during a break, Mrs. Leaf passed around a bag of hard candies, as she has done through much of the trial.

Mr. Motley spoke for 45 minutes yesterday about the companies' negligence and the misery of lung cancer and respiratory diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

When statements resume this morning, he will discuss the six men's cases, one by one.

Closing arguments in this phase are expected to continue into next week.

In later phases of the trial, the jury will rule on whether punitive damages should be assessed against the companies.

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