Asbestos companies lose bid for reduced damages New trial denied in consolidated case

June 04, 1993|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

A Baltimore judge yesterday refused to order a new trial or reduce damages in the nation's biggest consolidated asbestos case, leaving mostly intact a jury verdict last year that seven asbestos companies negligently made or sold asbestos to Maryland companies and are liable for damages to up to 8,555 plaintiffs.

Circuit Court Judge Marshall A. Levin denied nearly all the defendant companies' motions for a judgment that would have reversed the jury's verdict, or, failing that, for a new trial.

The companies filed 1,400 pages of motions and arguments and more than 10,000 pages of exhibits, Judge Levin said in his 218-page order.

Judge Levin was especially tart in denying complaints that he had ordered common issues in all 8,555 cases to be tried together at last year's megatrial in order to force the companies to settle all the claims, even those by workers who aren't injured.

"This complaint is untrue and absurd," the judge wrote. "This court ordered consolidation because it felt and does strongly feel that it is the best method to obtain justice for all parties."

In one of the few victories for the defendants, Judge Levin ordered a new trial on the issue of punitive damages to be paid by GAF Corp., a Wayne, N.J.-based building products and chemical company that used to sell asbestos.

But the impact of that ruling could be limited, since GAF has agreed since last year's verdict to settle in all Maryland asbestos cases. GAF will be back in court only to fight individual plaintiffs who decline the settlement. The GAF settlement is believed to be among the richest of the deals with nine former defendants who have settled the case.

The overall ruling may also have little immediate impact on the case, which Judge Levin created in 1990 by ordering a single trial of issues common to thousands of cases brought throughout Maryland by workers who claimed exposure to asbestos.

The consolidated trial is to be followed by up to 850 minitrials, in which small groups of workers will try to show that they personally were exposed to asbestos and injured by it. The first minitrial is going on now before Judge Levin. Following a recent order from the Maryland Court of Appeals, Judge Levin refused to make final the jury's judgment awarding $11.2 million in compensatory damages to three former steelworkers -- Leggette McNeil, Lawrence Leaf and Ira Russell.

The jury also ordered punitive damages.

The appellate court said the judgments could not be made final until yet another trial next year, when the companies the jury found negligent will try to prove some of the blame belongs to more than 100 other companies who were also involved in the manufacture, sale or installation of asbestos.

None of the money from defendants who went to trial has to be paid until the verdicts are final, said James P. Ulwick, a Baltimore lawyer representing GAF. The verdicts in the megatrial also can't be appealed until the judgments are final.

Peter G. Angelos, an attorney for more than 90 percent of the workers, has said money from companies who have settled their cases is beginning to be paid.

Judge Levin also refused the companies' plea to reduce the amount of damages awarded to Mr. McNeil, his wife, and to the families of the other two men, who have died. The cases of the three workers were among six used to show jurors in the main trial the human impact of asbestos, a mineral that was commonly used as insulation until the 1970s.

The other three "illustrative plaintiffs" lost their cases because the jury didn't believe they were injured by asbestos exposure. Asbestos has been linked to mesothelioma, a cancer of the chest wall or abdomen, lung cancer and other lung problems.

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