Asbestos suits reach courtroom at long last

2 of 5 juries picked to hear health cases workers filed years ago

July 11, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Thirty years ago, they say they breathed in asbestos fibers as they labored in steel mills and shipyards. As long as 15 years ago, they demanded the companies pay for the pain they believe those fibers caused. Only now are their cases coming to court.

Yesterday, dozens of men with white hair and weathered skin sat in courtrooms in Baltimore Circuit Court as their allegations that an insulation contracting company's use of asbestos poisoned them were finally presented to a jury.

It was the first day of a massive effort to begin slashing the court's backlog of 12,500 asbestos injury cases. The cases have lain dormant in the courthouse so long that some of the plaintiffs are no longer alive. If they win, the awards will go to the family.

Juries were picked in at least two of the five courtrooms where the cases will be argued.

"It is time these people got their day in court," said Bruce Hill, attorney for a cluster of 17 former workers at the Bethlehem Steel mill who claim exposure to asbestos there has led to serious health problems. "Justice delayed is justice denied. They are getting justice now"

For Jacob Conn, 72, justice means just making it into court. The former technician said he never thought his case would come to trial. It was not given a trial date until earlier this year.

Conn, a 30-year steel mill worker, said he filed suit in 1985 and was shocked when told that the case was headed for a courtroom."Finally, it's coming to a close," the Essex man said yesterday.

Conn, who was told he had the disabling lung disease asbestosis in 1985, said it has gotten harder to breathe over the years. "You can't do what you used to do, like play with the grandkids or mow the lawn," he said. "There ain't no cure for it. It just gets worse."

The cases will be scheduled before five judges in clusters of 30 plaintiffs until the backlog is cleared out, under the plan developed by Baltimore's Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller. Heller aims to pressure the companies to settle the claims against them to unclog the courts.

Of the primary defendants, Pittsburgh Corning Corp. has declared bankruptcy and is protected from legal action. Another, Porter-Hayden Co., has settled several cases, including all claims in the first batch of 300 cases. Insulation contracting firm Armstrong Contracting and Supply - AC&S - is the last remaining.

Lawyers for AC&S are expected to argue that other factors, such as smoking or exposure to asbestos because of another company, led to disease among the workers.

Seven national companies, including the three sued, were found liable and negligent for not warning workers about the health risks posed by exposure to asbestos in a massive 1992 civil trial in Baltimore. After that liability trial, "mini-trials" were supposed to be held for each plaintiff to seek damages,

But the city courts were overwhelmed by the caseload. Court officials decided to take the most serious cases to court first while the other cases sat.

"[My case] was so old, I figured they had all settled," Conn said.

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