Asbestos lawsuits blocked Judge grants injunction to Keene

July 02, 1993|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

A federal judge in New York yesterday issued a temporary injunction barring workers who claim they were hurt or their family members killed by exposure to asbestos from suing Keene Corp., a former asbestos maker that contended that tens of thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits have put it at the brink of bankruptcy.

The ruling by Senior Judge Jack B. Weinstein of U.S. District Court may effectively remove Keene as a defendant in Baltimore's massive consolidated asbestos litigation, with more than 8,550 plaintiffs.

Instead of letting the 98,000 lawsuits pending against Keene nationwide go forward, Judge Weinstein ordered them merged into a single class-action suit. The merger is designed to assure that Keene's assets are divided based on the merits of each case, rather than simply letting workers who sued sooner claim all of Keene's money.

Judge Weinstein found that Manhattan-based Keene does not have the money to cope with all the suits if they are tried separately. Keene has about $100 million in assets.

"We're attempting to maximize the funds to all asbestos claimants, and minimize the transaction costs [mostly lawyers' fees] that drain 70 or 80 percent of all dollars spent," Keene general counsel Stuart E. Rickerson said.

Asbestos is a mineral once widely used in insulation that has been linked to a variety of disorders.

Keene said the order would allow up to 850 minitrials designed to find whether individual Maryland workers were hurt by asbestos to go forward against other asbestos companies but would bar further action against Keene.

However, an attorney for the Maryland plaintiffs said last year's trial of the issues that all 8,550 cases have in common, in which Keene's sale of asbestos was found to be unreasonably dangerous, means that the Baltimore cases against Keene are already under way. The order allows trials already under way to be completed, though no jury award authorized in those cases may be paid.

The two-phase procedure in the Baltimore case was set up so that last year's Circuit Court trial could establish whether it was legally unreasonable for Keene and other companies to sell asbestos. The workers won that part of the case.

The main trial is to be followed by minitrials designed to sort out which workers were hurt by asbestos. Only those injured by asbestos can collect damages.

Armand Volta, an attorney in the law offices of Peter Angelos, said that the Baltimore workers don't believe Judge Weinstein ,, has jurisdiction over claims in state, rather than federal, courts. The Baltimore cases are pending in state court.

Most of the Baltimore plaintiffs say they were exposed to asbestos at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point mill.

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