Second consolidated asbestos trial begins

June 21, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

As opening statements began yesterday in Baltimore's second consolidated asbestos liability trial, lawyers representing thousands of former shipyard and construction workers accused asbestos companies of covering up potential health hazards of the cancer-causing mineral.

"There is a fundamental right in this country to be told the truth and not be used as guinea pigs," said lawyer Ronald Motley, charging that asbestos companies conducted "human experiments" on unknowing workers.

Judging by the opening statements in the Baltimore Circuit Court trial that has come to be known as "Consolidation 2," plaintiffs' lawyers will rely on evidence similar to that presented during the 1992 consolidated trial. That is, they will lean heavily on documents showing that companies should have been aware of the health risks of asbestos exposure as early as the 1930s, but for decades continued to use asbestos for its heat-shielding properties.

Referring to those documents, Mr. Motley told a jury of three men and three women that they will see "red, hot, smoking guns, and not just one or two, but a whole arsenal."

In the first consolidated trial -- with more than 8,500 plaintiffs, the largest of its type in the country -- a Baltimore jury found seven companies negligent and liable for failing to warn workers about the hazards of asbestos.

That verdict cleared the way for the thousands of plaintiffs claiming to suffer from diseases linked to on-the-job asbestos exposure to press for damages at future "mini-trials." Later, the jury assessed millions of dollars in punitive damages against four companies.

The second consolidated trial is a complicated proceeding in which nearly 10,000 plaintiffs are seeking compensation and the defendant companies are pursuing cross-claims against one another. Opening statements are to continue through tomorrow, and after two days of arguments on motions in the case, the first witnesses are to be called Monday.

The trial, expected to last three to six months, involves several groups of plaintiffs. The largest group consists of the 8,500 from the first consolidated trial, a group that will be interested in the outcome of cross-claims filed by defendants, including asbestos makers, sellers and installers.

For about 1,500 plaintiffs whose asbestos claims were made after the first trial, the trial that started yesterday will decide "common issues" of liability for the asbestos companies as well as the matter of cross-claims.

Also, the cases of six "illustrative" plaintiffs will be heard in their entirety. One of those six former workers died in February, but jurors will be shown a videotaped "death bed" deposition.

More than 40 companies are defendants or cross-claim defendants in the trial.

"This is a big case," plaintiff's lawyer Ted Flerlage told the jury yesterday. Mr. Flerlage, an attorney from the law firm of Peter G. Angelos, who represents most of the plaintiffs, added, "It's definitely the biggest case in Maryland and one of the biggest that's ever happened in the country in terms of size and the meaning of the case."

Its size could be seen in the technological trappings designed to allow the scores of lawyers to track the legal maneuverings.

For example, when a defense lawyer approached Judge Richard T. Rombro to complain that he should be allowed to know details of an agreement by Pittsburgh Corning Corp. to admit that its product was defective, dozens of lawyers read a nearly simultaneous transcription of the bench conference on laptop computers wired to the court stenographer.

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