Lawyers debate trying asbestos lawsuits in city

April 10, 1999|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore lawyers for out-of-state victims of alleged asbestos-related illnesses are trying to bring their court cases here, a move that defense attorneys say would open the door for a flood of litigation that could further overwhelm the city's crippled courts.

Scores of plaintiffs from Virginia and North Carolina, allegedly exposed to asbestos at Virginia shipyards, have filed suit in Baltimore Circuit Court, according to court records. Two of those cases landed in Maryland's Court of Appeals yesterday.

Attorneys for the asbestos companies argued that allowing the cases to proceed would clog the courts, where as many as 15,000 asbestos cases are pending and the criminal docket is so swamped that suspects of violent crimes have gone free because of trial delays.

"We have important public interest here," said attorney John P. Sweeney, who is representing Owens Corning Corp., named as a defendant in the two suits.

Michael T. Edmonds, attorney for two plaintiffs, acknowledged that asbestos cases in Baltimore generally involve exposure at shipyards here. But he said his clients are justified in pursuing their cases in Maryland because he plans to use experts from Baltimore at trial, five of the 27 defendants do business in Maryland, and the children of one client live in Maryland, one in Gaithersburg and one in Silver Spring.

"I think it is certainly appropriate" that Baltimore courts hear the cases, he said.

Edmonds represents two Virginia residents, Freddie James and Thomas M. Wise Jr., who were allegedly exposed to asbestos while working as laborers at Newport News, Va., shipyards. James died of cancer last April.

Sweeney said about 90 cases from Newport News are pending before Baltimore's Circuit Court. But there could be many more. "We don't know how many more are behind them," he said.

In August, Baltimore Administrative Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan denied a motion by the asbestos companies, which argued that the James and Wise cases should be dismissed because they did not belong here. Kaplan denied the motion without a hearing.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld that decision, which prompted lawyers to argue before the Court of Appeals yesterday.

At issue is whether an appeal such as this can be heard -- and decided -- before trial. Most appeals are taken only after the final disposition of the case.

Yesterday, Sweeney argued that proceeding with the cases, only to appeal them at the end, is a waste of time and judicial resources. Edmonds responded that Kaplan had given him the go-ahead for a trial.

Edmonds said he did not want to file his cases in the federal courts for Newport News -- where more than 2,200 cases have been filed -- because the cases would become part of so-called multidistrict litigation, and a trial date could be far off. He said he also considered state court in Newport News, where about 250 cases are filed every year. But ultimately he decided on Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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