Challenge to unified asbestos cases fails

Court declines to hear Crane appeal of $10 million verdict

February 23, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The technique used in Baltimore to resolve hundreds of asbestos injury claims by lumping them together for a single court trial withstood a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court yesterday.

Without comment, the justices refused to hear an appeal by John Crane Inc., a maker of pipe-sealing products that included asbestos, seeking to challenge $10.6 million in verdicts against it.

Crane was one of five companies found liable for tens of millions of dollars in damages in a single trial that involved 1,300 cases. The five companies appealed in Maryland courts. The state Court of Appeals overturned some or all of the verdicts against four of the companies, leaving intact only those against Crane, which appealed to the Supreme Court.

The trial was the second in Baltimore Circuit Court to use the consolidation technique, which was pioneered by Circuit Judge Marshall Levin. After the first case, competing legal claims among the sued companies over their shares of liability were left unresolved.

Those claims, together with new ones, were consolidated for trial before Circuit Judge Richard T. Rombro. The eight-month trial resulted in sizable verdicts for five individuals and their spouses, opening the way for possible damage verdicts in favor of the 1,300 others whose cases depended on the outcome.

In the verdicts, Crane was assessed $10.6 million in damages, to be awarded to the estate of Carroll Morrow, a Western Electric Co. plant inspector who died during the trial, and his wife, Doris; Frederick Glensky, a steamfitter at various companies in the Baltimore area, and his wife, Victoria; and Terry Theis, a steamfitter for Lloyd E. Mitchell Inc., and his wife, Joann.

The consolidation of asbestos injury and death claims has been used in state and federal courts as a way to handle tens of thousands of injury lawsuits.

Many attempts have been made to get the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of that approach, but the justices have generally shied away from reviewing state court cases.

John Crane Inc., in its unsuccessful appeal, argued that its right to due process was violated by the consolidated trial.

Crane contended that the single trial combined issues that differed from individual to individual and company to company, making it almost impossible for any sued company to get a fair trial.

The Maryland Court of Appeals rejected the due process claim in July in upholding the verdicts against Crane.

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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