Court rules asbestos suits may be limited Appeals panel says awards are subject to state restriction

12,000 cases await trial

Ruling covers actions for victims who died after Oct. 1, 1994

April 04, 1997|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

In a major setback for shipyard, steel and construction workers suffering from asbestos-induced illnesses, a state appeals court ruled yesterday that the thousands of suits they and their families have filed are subject to a state limit on pain and suffering.

The Court of Special Appeals slashed from $3.5 million to $500,000 the judgment that a Baltimore jury awarded in 1995 to two widows of asbestos victims. The court ruled that the legislature's limit on noneconomic "pain and suffering" damages applies to any suit filed on behalf of a victim who died after the limit took effect Oct. 1, 1994.

"What it means is anybody out there just now getting sick or anybody who dies in the future is going to be covered by this cap," said Edward J. Lilly, the lawyer for Peter G. Angelos' firm who represented the victims.

He was not the only advocate for asbestos victims who criticized the ruling for what it means to thousands of victims awaiting trial or not yet aware that they have one of the painful illnesses associated with the deadly fibers.

Some 12,000 asbestos cases await trial before Judge Edward J. Angeletti in Baltimore Circuit Court. The Court of Appeals decided several years ago that the cases would be consolidated and handled in Angeletti's courtroom.

The appeals court's ruling yesterday reversed a decision by Angeletti in 1995 to reject requests from Owens Corning Fiberglas Corp., Porter Hayden Co. and other defending companies to reduce the $15 million judgment a Baltimore jury handed to four plaintiffs at the end of the three-month trial.

The appeals court ruled that Elizabeth Caffery should not have been awarded the $2.3 million of that judgment allotted to her and that Ann Zumas should not have been given a $1.2 million share.

Both women were married to Bethlehem Steel shipyard workers who died several months after Oct. 1, 1994, the date that the limit on damages took effect.

The women were allowed to keep a separate $1 million award for claims of "loss of consortium," which are based on the harm their husband's injuries caused to their marriages.

The three-judge panel said that in awarding wrongful death claims, Maryland courts must look at the date the death occurs -- not when the victim was injured or discovered his injury.

Robert Percival, who teaches environmental law at the University of Maryland Law school, said the ruling will hurt industrial workers exposed to asbestos during the past 60 years because the material causes lung cancer and other illnesses that inflict terrible pain.

"In a lot of cases, the person lingers for a long time, so there's always been substantial basis for a jury to give out a large pain and suffering award," he said.

James Fite, executive director of the White Lung Association, an asbestos watchdog group, said thousands of victims' illnesses haven't even been diagnosed because the harm from asbestos, a heat-resistant material that was used for insulation and fireproofing, often does not appear until 10 to 40 years after exposure.

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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