Fibbers, plus smoke a lethal lmis, indeed

October 25, 1992|By Michael Ollove

The biggest asbestos case in the world had its origins in examining rooms in City Hospitals.

There in the late 1970s, a young, blunt-spoken doctor named James P. Keogh, was diagnosing case after case of asbestosis and lung cancer. An occupational health specialist, Dr. Keogh was also telling his patients -- most of them steel workers and building tradesmen -- that they should go see their lawyers.

In many instances, that lawyer was Peter G. Angelos, a one-time Baltimore City councilman and failed mayoral candidate. Mr. Angelos, the son of a laborer, had represented the Steelworkers' locals and the Building Trades Council since the 1960s. When a union man needed help with a workers' compensation claim, a traffic ticket or a minor scrape with the law, he more often than not found himself represented by Mr. Angelos' firm.

What had been a rather routine legal practice changed forever in 1979 by the flood of Dr. Keogh's patients. "In the 15 previous years, I had never seen one asbestosis claim," Mr. Angelos, 63, said. "In that first year, we saw 300 or 400 of them."

By then, asbestos manufacturers had been successfully sued. As a result, plaintiff attorneys were accumulating incriminating documents that demonstrated the manufacturers had long known that asbestos was dangerous.

In 1981, Mr. Angelos began filing his first asbestos cases against the manufacturers. In the early days, he also named Bethlehem Steel as a defendant. Company officials maintained that they were unaware of the hazards of asbestos, and Mr. Angelos ultimately dropped the steelmaker as a target. The numbers mounted quickly as the unions urged their members to get chest X-rays. Before the end of the decade, Mr. Angelos had 10,000 cases, and judges worried about their courts being overwhelmed.

The solution came in 1990 when Baltimore Circuit Judge Marshall Levin ordered the consolidation of all pending Maryland asbestos cases. He believed that one trial could resolve issues common to all the cases -- whether asbestos was hazardous and whether the manufacturers should have issued warnings.

The case pitted about 8,600 plaintiffs (about 8,000 of whom were represented by Mr. Angelos' firm) against 14 asbestos manufacturers. It would be the largest consolidated case in legal history.

The case began in April and ended with a jury verdict in July. Before the verdict, seven manufacturers named in the lawsuit made settlement offers. They were W. R. Grace & Co., Fiberboard Corp., Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp., Armstrong World Industries Inc., National Gypsum Co., Quigley Co. and U.S. Gypsum.

The jury found all seven other companies liable for failing to issue warnings about the dangers of their products: GAF Corp., Keene Corp., Pittsburgh Corning Corp., AC&S Inc., Owens Illinois Inc., MCIC and Porter Hayden Co. All were ordered to pay damages. In addition, the jury ruled that four companies -- GAF, Keene, Pittsburgh Corning and Porter Hayden must also pay punitive damages.

The jury awarded $11.2 million to three former Bethlehem Steel workers -- two of them already dead -- whose circumstances were used as test cases. All the other plaintiffs will have "mini-trials" to determine their awards. They must still demonstrate that they are ill and that their illness arose from asbestos exposure. But the issue of whether asbestos is hazardous and whether the manufacturers had a duty to warn already has been decided.

Mr. Angelos estimates that the final awards total will likely be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Since his firm has the standard one-third contingency arrangement, he acknowledges that his firm "stands to make a lot of money."

But the money will have to be spread further. When the first cases surfaced in 1979, Mr. Angelos had four or five lawyers in a downtown office suite. Today, he's got 50 lawyers.

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