A Baltimore jury assessed millions of dollars in punitive damages against three companies today in the nation's largest asbestos personal injury trial.
In ruling the companies will have to pay up to $2.50 for every dollar of compensatory damages, the jury clearly rejected arguments from the companies' lawyers that high awards could put them out of business.
But only time will tell how many millions will be assessed against the companies. Jurors were only asked to decide on a "multiplier" -- a formula for assigning punitive damages based on actual awards to any of the plaintiffs.
In an earlier phase in the five-month trial, the Baltimore Circuit Court jury awarded $11.2 million in damages to the three plaintiffs.
More than 8,500 plaintiffs in the consolidated case will have their individual claims heard later in "mini-trials."
The jury, which deliberated for about three hours Friday before being sent home for the weekend, reached its latest verdict less than an hour after reconvening at 9 a.m. today.
After the verdict was read, plaintiffs' lawyer Joseph Rice said: "[The jurors] have spoken loud and clear that the type of conduct they found these companies culpable of had to be fined."
Mr. Rice added the companies have no right to complain that their assets may be decimated because their wealth was built on wrongful behavior.
"The jury determined it was unfair to allow the companies to prosper," he said.
The jury ruled GAF Corp. will have to pay $2.50 and that both Keene Corp. and Pittsburgh Corning Corp. will have to pay $1.50 for every dollar of actual damages. Mr. Rice said those figures were in line with verdicts in consolidated cases in other states, including Texas, where multipliers were used.
Bill Harvard, lawyer for Pittsburgh Corning, said the verdict was not unexpected, given the manner in which the case was consolidated.
"The judicial system itself has been victimized and a circus-like atmosphere was permitted to prevail," he said, adding the company is eagerly awaiting to test its case in the appeals courts.
The jury remained deadlocked this morning on the fate of Porter-Hayden Co., the fourth company facing punitive damages.
The jury ruled last month that the four companies must pay punitive damages for disregarding knowledge of the potential health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos in the workplace. That verdict allowed the trial to move into its fourth and final phase, where testimony was heard on the four companies' financial means to pay any fines that may be assessed against them.
Arguments in the final phase featured language that seemed more suited for the reptile house than the courthouse, with plaintiffs' lawyers comparing some of the companies on trial to "slimy" lizards great and small.
"They're up here crying crocodile tears about future victims," plaintiffs' lawyer Ronald Motley complained. He was angry because GAF Corp. had argued that large punitive awards would wipe out the company till for paying future claimants. He also termed the company a "chameleon corporation" for changing its defenses.
Mr. Rice called the Keene Corp. and its chairman, Glenn W. Bailey, "underhanded and slimy" for, in his opinion, shifting assets into shell corporations to keep them from asbestos victims.
The companies also argued that since the share of compensatory damages each company will have to pay claimants hasn't been determined, the jury could not know the effect of its verdict.