City asbestos jury levies millions in punitive damages Companies claimed high awards could wipe them out

August 11, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

2/3 TC A Baltimore jury assessed millions of dollars in punitive damages against four companies yesterday, ending 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 apparently dismissed arguments from the companies' lawyers that high awards could put them out of business or at least wipe out the company tills for paying future asbestos victims.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs had demanded that the companies be punished for disregarding knowledge that they were endangering workers.

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 8,550 plaintiffs.

Yesterday's verdicts ended a five-month trial that generated 28,000 pages of transcribed testimony and almost 1 million pages of documents. Evidence in the trial ranged from leaden explanations of financial and scientific concepts to a dramatic videotape of a 62-year-old former steamfitter and mesothelioma sufferer's dying days.

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 that the companies have no right to complain that their assets may be decimated because their wealth was built on wrongful behavior.

The jury ruled that GAF Corp. will have to pay $2.50 for everydollar of actual damages and that Keene Corp. and Pittsburgh Corning Corp. will each 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.

The jury said the fourth defendant facing punitive damages, Porter-Hayden Co., should pay 35 cents in punitive damages for every dollar of compensatory damages.

Bill Harvard, lawyer for Pittsburgh Corning, said the verdict against his client was not unexpected. "The judicial system itself has been victimized and a circuslike atmosphere was permitted to prevail," he said, adding that the company is eagerly waiting to test its case in the appeals courts.

Stuart Rickerson, vice president and general counsel for Keene, said his company did not receive a fair trial. "We've said from day one that non-consensual consolidations are unconstitutional and unduly prejudicial to defendants," Mr. Rickerson said. He predicted that the multiplier concept for punitive damages will be overturned on appeal.

A spokesman for GAF said the company is confident of the success of its planned appeal of the punitive damages and verdicts reached in other phases of the trial.

In July, the jury found seven companies negligent and liable for failing to warn workers about the potential health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos. That verdict 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."

Eight companies settled their cases with the plaintiffs before the trial began.

In the second phase of the trial, the jury awarded $11.2 million in damages to three plaintiffs. The jury found against three other "trial plaintiffs" whose individual claims were included to give the trial a human element.

The jury ruled last month that the four companies must pay punitive damages for disregarding knowledge about the health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos. 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 punitive damages.

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.

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.

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