The jury in the nation's largest asbestos personal injury trial ruled yesterday that four companies must pay punitive damages for disregarding knowledge of the potential health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos in the workplace.
The verdict, reached by a Baltimore Circuit Court jury after about eight hours of deliberations over two days, sets the stage for the final -- and, likely, the most hotly contested phase -- of the four-month trial.
Starting Tuesday, the jury will hear testimony on the four companies' financial means to pay any fines that may be assessed against them. Based on that evidence, the jury will determine a "multiplier," or formula for assigning punitive damages based on actual damages awarded to any of the 8,550 plaintiffs in the case.
In an earlier phase of the trial, the jury awarded $11.2 million in compensatory damages to three former Bethlehem Steel Corp. employees whose health problems -- and, in two cases, deaths -- were caused by exposure to asbestos.
Other plaintiffs in the case will have their individual claims heard later in "mini-trials."
The inhalation of tiny asbestos fibers has been linked to cancer and asbestosis, a crippling lung disease. Many of the plaintiffs claimed they were exposed to asbestos while working in the steel and shipbuilding industries.
Yesterday, the jury of 10 women and two men found against all four companies facing punitive damages. Those companies are GAF Corp., Keene Corp., Pittsburgh Corning Corp. and Porter-Hayden Co.
"It's a total victory for the plaintiffs and a total devastation for the defendants," said Ronald Motley, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
"And it's a victory for the people of Maryland in safeguarding their environment and lifestyle from the kind of conduct the defendants put on them," added Joseph Rice, another lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Even before the jury returned with its verdict yesterday, the lawyers were sparring over evidence that may be presented next week.
Mr. Motley said documents unveiled at a hearing yesterday revealed the Keene Corp. engaged in "obnoxious asset sheltering."
"They formed [a] corporation with the explicit intention of sheltering assets from the reach of asbestos victims," Mr. Motley said.
F. Ford Loker, a lawyer representing Keene in the case, pointed out that his company prevailed in the earlier hearing, when the judge ruled that Keene President Glenn W. Bailey would not have to come to Baltimore to give a deposition. He said the judge also ruled that another Keene official could not be asked about any corporations other than Keene.
"I think Keene has comported itself honorably over the years, and Mr. Motley is once again overreaching and resorting to rhetorical flourish," Mr. Loker said.
In complaining to presiding Judge Marshall A. Levin that Keene was trying to "hide behind the cloak of secrecy" in refusing to make available financial records, Mr. Motley referred to an old source of contention: advertisements placed by Keene in newspapers around the country attacking the handling of asbestos cases.
In May, Judge Levin issued an injunction against those ads, but the state Court of Special Appeals overturned that order a month later.
Testimony and arguments in the final phase of the four-month trial are expected to last about a week.
On July 13, the jury found seven companies negligent and liable for failing to warn workers about the potential health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos. Two of those companies, AC&S Inc. and MCIC, were removed from consideration for punitive damages by order of Judge Levin. Another company, Owens-Illinois Inc., was removed under a settlement agreement.
The jurors found that the asbestos industry knew about the link ** between asbestos and respiratory disease about 60 years ago and that the companies failed to protect workers adequately.
Asbestos is a mineral that separates into fibers. It is heat-resistant and was widely used for thermal insulation in ships and buildings.