Jury selection starts in Circuit Court in second consolidated asbestos trial

June 09, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

Jury selection has begun for the Baltimore Circuit Court's second consolidated asbestos liability trial -- a complicated proceeding in which almost 11,000 people are hoping for compensation, and defendants are pursuing cross-claims against one another.

Judge Richard T. Rombro said the trial is expected to last three to six months, and the problems of managing a proceeding with dozens of lawyers will require high-tech solutions -- perhaps earphones for lawyers to hear bench conferences, or laptop computers for them to read near-instant transcriptions from the court reporter.

The mass trial involves several groups. The largest involves 8,500 plaintiffs whose cases were heard on common issues in the first consolidated trial in 1992 under Judge Marshall A. Levin.

Defendants in the first trial -- including asbestos manufacturers, sellers and installers -- are also pursuing cross-claims and third-party claims over liability in "Consolidation 2," as this trial is known. Cross-claims were excluded in the 1992 trial.

About 2,500 other plaintiffs whose asbestos claims were made after first big trial have been incorporated in the current case -- which for them will involve common issues as well as the matter of cross-claims.

The cases of six individual plaintiffs are to be heard in their entirety, according to attorney Thomas V. Friedman, who with the law firm of Peter G. Angelos represents most of the thousands seeking compensation.

The six cases, including "personal, uncommon issues" involving the manner of asbestos exposure and specific ailments alleged to have resulted from it, will enable the jurors to "see the effect that common issues have had on flesh and blood," Mr. Friedman said.

But for most plaintiffs, the "uncommon issues" are expected to be heard in minitrials involving smaller groups in coming years.

"What we're hopeful for is that eventually these companies will see the light and come to their senses and realize the economy is in settling these things," Mr. Friedman said.

Over the course of the litigation and Consolidation 1, some companies have reached claim settlements. Other defendants have taken up appeals. And there are likely to be new claims of asbestos injury in the future.

"You can figure that for the next at least 15 years, maybe even 20 years, that people will still be diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases because of the long latency period there is for the diagnosis to be made," Mr. Friedman said. He said the time period from exposure to diagnosis of various diseases ranges from 15 to 40 years.

The 11,000 people making asbestos claims are mostly Marylanders who worked for Bethlehem Steel Corp. or were employed in construction trades that exposed them to asbestos, Mr. Friedman said.

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