Panel chides fellow judge

Belated disclosure of lawyer's job offer rebuked as `error'

Asbestos suits to proceed

July 22, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Four Baltimore circuit judges criticized a fellow judge yesterday for his "belated disclosure" of a job offer from plaintiffs' attorney Peter G. Angelos shortly before he was to begin presiding over an asbestos injury trial.

But the four judges - each presiding over an asbestos jury trial and sitting together as an ad hoc panel - denied motions for mistrial by defendant ACandS Inc. arising from Angelos' offer to Judge Edward J. Angeletti.

"This panel has concluded that there were errors in judgment in these cases by both plaintiffs' counsel and the judge," Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller said in announcing the ruling. "Under the circumstances, we believe the judge should have made full and complete disclosure of any employment discussion immediately."

Heller said she and Judges M. Brooke Murdock, Richard T. Rombro and Allan L. Schwait also found that "there has been no prejudice to the defense," even though Angeletti waited 2 1/2 weeks to disclose the Angelos offer.

ACandS lawyer Donald S. Meringer said his client's legal team would decide whether to use the denial of the motions for mistrial as grounds for appeal.

"I think they just don't get it," Meringer said of the four judges. "I think the court missed the point."

Edward J. Lilly, an attorney for the Angelos firm who argued against the motions for mistrial, left the courtroom immediately after the ruling was announced. Efforts to reach Lilly and Angelos late yesterday afternoon were unsuccessful.

After hearing 10 minutes of arguments each from Meringer and Lilly, the four judges deliberated for 40 minutes before returning with their decision.

The hearing brought a temporary halt to the five trials, each with up to 30 cases, that began July 10 as part of a plan developed by Heller to clear a backlog of thousands of cases of workers whose asbestos injury claims have languished for more than a decade.

The trials resumed after the hearing.

On Thursday morning, Angeletti denied an identical motion for mistrial in the trial he was conducting - shortly after motions were filed in all five asbestos trials.

The 63-year-old judge - who retired in November but accepted an assignment by Heller in mid-June to help clear the backlogged asbestos cases - said he could not comment on his colleagues' decision or their criticism of him, because of the ongoing litigation.

Last week, Angeletti disclosed that he had received a job offer on June 23, from Angelos, who has made millions of dollars suing asbestos companies and whose financial interests include downtown real estate and majority ownership in the Baltimore Orioles.

Angeletti said the offer was withdrawn a week later, although he did not disclose the offer to defense lawyers until July 11, the day after the trial had begun.

Angelos said earlier this week that he wanted to hire Angeletti to oversee litigation he filed last year against lead-paint manufacturers.

After learning of the Angelos offer, lawyers for ACandS asked Angeletti to remove himself from the case - a request Angeletti denied.

They sought mistrials on Thursday in all five trials, not just the one before Angeletti, because the judge had made pretrial rulings affecting all proceedings. They also said Angeletti improperly presided over pretrial settlement talks during the week that the Angelos offer was on the table.

During yesterday's hearing, Meringer said the defendant had a right to a trial "free of taint."

Lilly argued that nothing would be gained by granting the motion, "other than a delay."

Heller gave several reasons for denying the motions for mistrial. Among them were that there was no settlement in the cases before Angeletti and that Angeletti's pretrial rulings were not issued until July 7 - "a full week after all discussions had terminated" about the Angelos offer.

Each of the other four judges presiding over asbestos trials independently reviewed Angeletti's pretrial rulings and generally agreed with them, Heller said.

On Thursday, Angeletti said in court that he notified Heller promptly of the Angelos offer and its withdrawal.

Heller made no mention of that notification in court yesterday, and it is unclear whether she advised Angeletti at any point to notify defense lawyers about the offer.

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