New team of attorneys named in asbestos case Judge denies motion for postponement

August 04, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

Nearly five months into the nation's largest asbestos personal-injury trial and out trots a new team of lawyers for the defense. They immediately ask for a timeout.

"Incredible," says Judge Marshall A. Levin.

"It just smacks of an attempt to booby-trap this trial," Judge Levin told the attorneys for GAF Corp., one of four companies facing punitive damages in the trial's final phase but the only one to bring a new gaggle of lawyers into the fray yesterday. "I'm struggling to find some merit in your request."

In the end, he found none. He denied GAF's request for a postponement to allow its new New York lawyers to investigate "new evidence."

And he suggested that many of the new crew's new arguments were little more than a rehashing of disputes settled long ago.

Earlier yesterday, one of the new lawyers said GAF's chairman would make an afternoon appearance in Baltimore Circuit Court.

When the appointed hour of 3 p.m. arrived, Samuel J. Heyman was reported to be in New York, in "a meeting." Stephen A. Block, senior vice president and general counsel, would have to do.

"Remarkable," said the judge. "I'm not saying anyone is lying but it's remarkable there's such sloppy preparation here."

The turn of events yesterday left lawyers for the 8,550 plaintiffs in the consolidated case shaking their heads.

It was to have been a day for working out details and preparing for the start of the trial's final phase.

No one knew that the lawyers from the Baltimore firm of Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver, who have been representing GAF, would be benched in favor of the out-of-towners.

In a letter to Judge Levin, Mr. Block said a split on legal strategy developed over the weekend between company officials and the Baltimore lawyers.

The letter said that Baltimore lawyer Charles T. Smith II would remain as co-counsel but that he would need help in the trial's last phase because of his "relative inexperience in handling trials of this magnitude."

E. Donald Elliott, GAF's new lead attorney, said Mr. Smith failed to offer closing arguments as instructed by company officials.

Mr. Smith was in court only briefly yesterday morning. By the afternoon all of the Baltimore lawyers had left the courtroom.

The judge spoke up for Mr. Smith and his co-workers, saying they did a "Herculean" job.

On Thursday, the jury in the trial ruled that GAF and three other companies must pay punitive damages for disregarding knowledge of the potential health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos in the workplace.

Starting today, 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 thousands of plaintiffs in the case.

In his letter, Mr. Block said last week's verdict came as a "complete surprise" to his company because it has never had to pay punitive damages in more than 70,000 prior asbestos cases.

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