Million-dollar awards in asbestos cases

July 26, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Harvey L. Scruggs did not live to see his multimillion-dollar verdict.

When he testified in April, he was weak and short of breath from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining. Tears filled nearly every eye in the courtroom.

"It seems like I'm hanging on by a thread," he said then. "I don't know if I'm going to wake up tomorrow or not.

"I think about what my wife and kids will do without me being here. And I think about how it hurts them so much to see you suffer on something that somebody could have taken care of years ago."

A Baltimore jury will begin today to decide how much in punitive damages asbestos maker Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp. should pay to the Scruggs estate. This is the same jury that Friday ordered Owens-Corning and another asbestos company, Porter-Hayden Co., to pay $3.5 million in compensatory damages to his estate.

The Baltimore Circuit Court jury also returned million-dollar verdicts Friday to the estates of three other men who died of mesothelioma.

Ralph D. Garrett, a former shipyard worker and electrician, died in October at age 67. The jury ordered two asbestos companies to pay his estate $1 million.

Norman J. Hannon Jr., a steamfitter who worked at construction sites in the Baltimore area, was 59 when he died in March 1993. His estate will receive $1.75 million under the jury's verdict.

William Hohman, who rose from laborer to safety inspector at the Vista Chemical Corp. in Glen Burnie, was 56 when he died in 1986. His estate was awarded $1.5 million.

Their trial took place one door down from Baltimore's second consolidated asbestos liability trial, a proceeding in which nearly 10,000 plaintiffs are seeking compensation and the defendant companies are pursuing cross-claims against one another. The cases of Mr. Scruggs and the three other plaintiffs were pursued separately because of the seriousness of their ailments.

The Harvey Scruggs story stood out even in the world of asbestos litigation, where tales of suffering and agonizing death are common.

Before he died June 22, Mr. Scruggs went from a once-strapping, 205-pound ship mechanic to a 145-pound, middle-aged retiree who couldn't descend stairs without help. The father of two did not look forward to testifying from his wheelchair, a plastic tube running from an oxygen tank to his nose.

"It's hard to sit here and tell people all about your home life, how you can't do things that you could do before," he had said.

Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma.

During the recent trial, Dr. Lewis J. Rubin, director of the Pulmonary and Critical Care Division of the University of Maryland Medical Center, said of the cancer: "There is the constant feeling of air hunger and smothering. Perhaps the only blessing with mesothelioma is that most patients die relatively quickly, usually in six or nine months, so that the suffering is relatively short-lived."

Mr. Scruggs was first hospitalized with symptoms of the disease in October 1992 -- more than a year-and-a-half before he died.

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