Court focus set to begin on asbestos

Extra judges, jurors will join in bid to cut 12,500-case backlog

Some plaintiffs died waiting

Clusters of 30 each to be heard

move is `without precedent'

July 10, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Beginning today, thousands of civil suits against asbestos companies are finally headed for trial in Baltimore Circuit Court, as officials try to slash a backlog so severe that some plaintiffs have died waiting for their cases to be heard.

Court officials will begin to chip away at the roughly 12,500 pending asbestos injury cases that have been sitting in the clogged courthouse for more than a decade. Five judges will hear the cases, which are scheduled in clusters of 30 plaintiffs each, until the backlog is cleared out, said Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller.

"This is without precedent," Heller said. "We really had to do something. ... We just can't let them sit here."

While a lawyer for one asbestos company expressed concern that the process would confuse jurors, Heller said the cases have lingered for far too long and must be dealt with promptly.

Two hundred additional jurors have been summoned to appear today - bringing the total to 800. Extra jurors will likely be brought in about every three weeks, as each case ends and new ones begin, said Jury Commissioner Marilyn Tokarski.

"It's going to be a monumental job, but we are prepared for it," Tokarski said.

Because of limited space in the jury assembly room, many prospective jurors will be seated in open courtrooms until they are called for a case, Tokarski said. There will be additional staff to pay and escort jurors through the courthouse.

"No one is being excused, unless you've got something from a doctor's office saying you can't stay," Tokarski said.

Baltimore is an epicenter of asbestos injury cases because of the many shipyards and steel mills that once employed much of the region's population.

Heller said she began planning the asbestos case crackdown last fall with plaintiffs and defense attorneys when she discovered that many of the oldest cases had not been scheduled. Under the plan, the old cases will be tried first.

Most of the cases set for today were filed in 1987, said Gardner M. Duvall, an asbestos defense lawyer with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, who worked with Heller.

"Some of the [plaintiffs] are alive, some are not," Duvall said. If the claimant dies, damages would go to the family. It's not clear how many plaintiffs have died.

Seven national asbestos manufacturers or distributors were found negligent and liable for not warning workers about health problems related to asbestos exposure in a massive 1992 Baltimore civil trial. But after that first liability trial, plaintiffs had to seek damages on their own by showing juries that they were exposed to asbestos and it caused them harm.

Flooded with cases, city judges decided several years ago to start hearing the most serious ones first. Those cases involve mesothelioma, a cancer directly linked to asbestos. Heller said the cases were scheduled in clusters of three to five plaintiffs about five times a year.

Meanwhile, the other cases sat.

Key to Heller's plan is putting pressure on the asbestos companies to settle the claims.

The companies had little incentive to resolve the issues, she said, because the cases were not being scheduled for court."[Now] if they don't settle, they are going to trial," Heller said. "We hope it won't go on for years, [but] you can't let cases sit and not process them."

Duvall, who represents defendant Porter-Hayden Co., said his client has settled many of the claims since last winter. "The trial date really motivates both sides to focus," Duvall said.

But Duvall said he is concerned with the way the plan is structured. He said trying cases with so many plaintiffs, who may have varying illnesses or symptoms, could confuse juries.

"If 30 guys get up there and say something really similar, it gets really confusing who said what," Duvall said. "The worry is that ... with the mass of facts in 30 cases, [the juries] will not figure [the case] out one by one as they are supposed to do."

The Baltimore case had three major defendants, but one, Pittsburgh Corning, declared bankruptcy in April, which protects it from legal action.

That means most cases will go forward against Porter-Hayden Co. and AC&S Inc., both insulation contracting companies.

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