Asbestos award cut by judge

June 30, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

A Baltimore Circuit judge yesterday struck down much of a jury's award of punitive damages in Maryland's second consolidated asbestos case, reducing the amount that as many as 1,500 Maryland workers can collect for exposure to deadly asbestos fibers.

Judge Richard T. Rombro ruled that Westinghouse Electric Corp. and Harbison-Walker Refractories did not have "actual knowledge" that their asbestos-containing products were dangerous to workers. As a result, the judge said, the companies will not have to pay punitive damages in forthcoming "minitrials" at which hundreds of construction and shipyard workers will present individual cases for compensation.

The jury in the consolidated trial determined in February that both companies should pay punitive damages of $2 for every dollar in actual damages assessed against them in the minitrials.

Rapid American Corp., which the jury also assigned punitive damages, will have to pay them only for workers who can show they were harmed by the company's products after 1963, under the judge's ruling. The jury had directed that the company pay workers harmed at any time $1 in punitive damages for every dollar in actual damages.

The order is the latest stage in one of the largest sets of personal-injury cases in the country. The judge's action did not extend to the question of compensatory damages against 11 companies found negligent by the jury last December.

Five workers whose cases were decided in the trial still are to receive compensatory awards ranging from $500,000 to $9 million, though with settlements, post-trial motions and appeals, it is unclear what they ultimately will recover. But the judge's ruling struck punitive damages from Harbison-Walker and Rapid American for two of those workers.

Awards for the other workers who are to present their claims in the "minitrials" will depend on whether, and to what extent, they can show they were harmed.

In a 27-page opinion, Judge Rombro wrote that he was revoking the awards because of a 1992 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that requires that the defendant knew a product was dangerous, and acted with malice in allowing workers to continue to be exposed to it.

The judge said evidence against Westinghouse and Harbison-Walker showed that while articles and other information about the dangers of asbestos were available at the time the workers were exposed, the companies were not necessarily aware that their products were hazardous.

For example, Harbison-Walker believed that asbestos used on bricks would be rendered safe because of the high temperatures the bricks were exposed to in furnaces.

"Defendant's belief may have been mistaken, but this is far below the standard required for punitive damages," the judge wrote.

On the other hand, Philip Carey Manufacturing Co. -- which later became Rapid American through a series of mergers -- continued to expose workers to products containing asbestos even after a consultant the company hired wrote a report recommending that procedures be developed for the safe use of its products. The consultant was fired shortly after writing the report, according to court testimony.

"We're very pleased with the ruling," said Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert. "We think it shows we as a corporation and our employees acted responsibly and ethically."

Ted Flerlage, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said the ruling sent a discouraging message about punishing corporations for causing harm. "It's consistent with the way the tort reform movement is going right now," Mr. Flerlage said.

He said he was exploring options for challenging the ruling.

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