$11 million goes to three plaintiffs in asbestos trial 'Oh my Lord!' is stunned reaction of one man's wife

July 24, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

An article in Friday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated the jury in the nation's largest asbestos trial would begin hearing arguments on whether punitive damages should be assessed against seven asbestos companies found negligent in an earlier phase of the trial. Two companies, MCIC and AC&S Inc., were removed from consideration for punitive damages by a prior ruling by Judge Marshall A. Levin. A third, Owens-Illinois Inc., was removed under a settlement agreement. The article incorrectly described Donna Russell's relationship to Ira Russell, former steamfitter who died in January. Ms. Russell is Mr. Russell's daughter.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

The jury in the nation's larges asbestos trial yesterday awarded $11.2 million in damages to three former Bethlehem Steel Corp. employees whose health problems -- and, in two cases, deaths -- were caused by exposure to asbestos.

"Oh my Lord!" said a stunned Geneva McNeil, reached by telephone at her East Baltimore home and told that the jury had awarded $3.3 million to her and her ailing husband. Citing the advice of their attorneys, she declined to comment further.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The Baltimore Circuit Court jury awarded no damages to three other "trial plaintiffs," whose specific claims were presented to add a human element to the four-month trial. In those cases, the jury said it was not convinced the men's respiratory ailments were caused by exposure to asbestos.

The jury's rulings, reached after 13 hours of deliberations over two days, marked the end of the trial's second phase. In the first phase, the jury sided with the 8,550 plaintiffs in the consolidated case, finding seven companies negligent and liable for failing to warn workers about the potential health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos.

That initial verdict, reached July 13, cleared the way for the thousands of plaintiffs claiming to suffer from diseases linked to on-the-job exposure to asbestos to press for damages at future "mini-trials." Ronald Motley, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said yesterday's verdict is not necessarily a harbinger for future damage awards because the jury in the case was carefully screened and is highly educated.

During four days of closing arguments in the trial-plaintiffs phase, Mr. Motley and other attorneys for the plaintiffs presented emotional appeals designed to persuade the jury to award millions in compensatory damages.

Expressing the resentment felt by the plaintiffs toward asbestos companies such as GAF Corp., Mr. Motley ended his arguments last Friday by passing on a remark made by Legette McNeil, 74, a former ingot checker at Bethlehem Steel whose asbestosis has left him dependent on an oxygen tank.

"Mr. McNeil said if he could get the asbestos out of his lungs, he'd put it in a package with no return address," the lawyer told the jurors. "He said, 'I'd send it straight to New York, to the president of GAF.' "

Earlier that day, Mr. Motley donned a white laboratory jacket and produced a toy medical kit in an attempt to mock a defense lawyer who, he said, was addressing the jury on medical terms as if he were a doctor. The antic prompted a defense motion for a mistrial, which was denied by presiding Judge Marshall A. Levin.

Another dramatic highlight of the closing arguments was the presentation of a short video tape of the last days of Lawrence Leaf, a 62-year-old former steamfitter and mesothelioma sufferer who died in 1986. The jury awarded his widow, Virginia Leaf, $4.2 million.

Her daughter, Greta Rolland, the only family member present for the reading of the verdict, wept as she left the courtroom, waving off reporters' requests for comments.

The jury also awarded $3.7 million to Donna Russell, widow of former steamfitter Ira Russell. Mr. Russell suffocated in January, a complication of pulmonary asbestosis. He was 69.

Before the trial started, Judge Levin allowed both sides to choose three trial plaintiffs. The jury ruled in favor of the three selected by the plaintiffs and against the three selected by the defense.

Yesterday's verdict came one day after a Washington, D.C., jury awarded $15.5 million to three Maryland men who developed cancer after being exposed to asbestos on the job, said attorney Peter G. Angelos, who represented plaintiffs in both cases.

Judge Levin ordered the Baltimore jury to return Monday, when it will begin hearing arguments on whether punitive damages should be assessed against the asbestos companies found negligent. Those companies are: GAF Corp., Keene Corp., Pittsburgh Corning Corp., AC&S Inc., MCIC, Porter-Hayden Co. and Owens-Illinois Inc.

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