Asbestos minitrial on damages set up

May 16, 1993|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge plans to go ahead this wee with the first minitrial to determine monetary damages for plaintiffs in the nation's largest asbestos personal-injury trial.

After a five-month trial last year, a city jury found six companies negligent and liable for damages for failing to warn workers about health hazards from exposure to asbestos.

The first minitrial had been scheduled March 23 to consider claims by 10 of the 8,500-plus plaintiffs, who still must prove that they suffered asbestos-related disease caused by one of the defendants' products, said Judge Marshall A. Levin.

A six-member jury with three alternates had been selected, and three of the six companies settled before trial.

Then two defendants, Keene Corp. and Porter Hayden Co., asked the Court of Appeals to intervene before the case began, and the minitrial was put on hold.

Although the high court refused to intervene before trial, in an April 28 opinion it told Judge Levin not to enter a final order for the damages because other defendants might have to share the financial burden.

On Friday, Judge Levin received a list from the three remaining defendants naming more than 100 other companies against whom they might file cross-claims.

He will meet with the lawyers for both sides this week to consider how to manage this aspect of the case, Judge Levin said, contemplating "some kind of a master cross-claim trial later."

To complicate matters, Keene filed suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in New York, asking the federal court to halt all asbestos cases against it, to declare that it has limited resources, and to set up a fund from which to pay future damage awards.

Judge Levin said he hadn't received formal notice of that case, and doubted that a federal court in New York would have any jurisdiction over a state trial in Maryland.

B. Ford Davis, an attorney for Keene, said the federal action is being handled by corporate attorneys in New York, but noted that the lawsuit is national in scope and not aimed at the Maryland minitrials.

Paul Safchuck, national president of the White Lung Association, angrily denounced the legal actions as "a game to delay, deny and defraud the victims of asbestos exposure."

"The judicial system has failed the victims," he said.

Judge Levin said: "The Court of Appeals has not said we can't have minitrials, just that we can't have final judgments. . . . So I'm going to do one, to serve as a model for the others."

The first minitrial will take about four weeks, he said.

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