Timing of job offer at issue

Hearing to fix date of lawyer's dealings with judge sought

Asbestos trial faces delay

July 29, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Claiming the "likelihood" that a Baltimore judge discussed working for plaintiffs' attorney Peter G. Angelos far earlier than he has acknowledged, defense lawyers in a $2.1 million asbestos case have asked a state appeals court to order a hearing on the job offer.

Lawyers for John Crane Inc. want the Court of Special Appeals to halt the company's appeal of last year's jury verdict and send the case back to Baltimore Circuit Court for a hearing to gain more information about job talks between Angelos and Judge Edward J. Angeletti.

The hearing is necessary to determine whether Angeletti should have stepped down from hearing the case against the sealant company, brought by the estate of a deceased worker who suffered injury from exposure to asbestos, the lawyers said in court papers.

Calling the circumstances of the Angelos offer "vague at best," the motion said there are "serious questions about the timing, the nature and the extent of the employment negotiations" between Angeletti and Angelos.

"The parties' and the public's perception of fairness in this proceeding and belief in the integrity of the judicial process must be preserved, and they cannot be without the discovery sought in this case," company lawyers Deborah L. Robinson and Bruce G. Harris wrote in a motion filed Wednesday.

"A minor delay for this purpose is a small price to pay when the stakes are so high and the goal is so laudable," the lawyers said in the motion, as part of their appeal to the state's intermediate appellate court.

Robinson declined to comment on the motion.

Neither Angelos nor Edward J. Lilly, an attorney for the firm served with the court papers, returned phone calls to their offices.

Angeletti said he was unaware of the motion and referred questions to the appeals court.

On July 21, a panel of four Baltimore circuit judges criticized Angeletti for his "belated disclosure" of the Angelos offer shortly before the judge was to begin presiding over an asbestos injury trial. But the four - hearing a backlog of asbestos cases with Angeletti - denied motions for mistrial filed by defendant ACandS Inc. because of the offer.

Angeletti, who denied a separate motion for mistrial filed in his courtroom, said in a statement from the bench last week that he had been offered a job with Angelos' firm on June 23 of this year and that the offer had been withdrawn June 30.

But he did not disclose the offer to lawyers for ACandS until July 11 - a day after the trial had begun and several days after he had presided over unsuccessful settlement talks and ruled on pretrial motions affecting cases in all five courtrooms.

Angeletti, who had presided over the city's asbestos docket, retired in November, but was asked to return to the bench to help clear the backlog of asbestos cases, some of which have languished for more than a decade.

Angelos, who has made millions of dollars suing asbestos manufacturers and whose business interests include majority ownership of the Baltimore Orioles, said last week that he wanted to hire Angeletti to supervise litigation he filed last year against lead paint manufacturers. He said he withdrew the offer after it became apparent that Angeletti would continue to hear asbestos cases in retirement.

The motion by lawyers for John Crane, a subsidiary of a London-based engineering company, does not specify when job talks between Angelos and Angeletti might have occurred.

But it said Angelos' firm had known for months that Angeletti would be hearing asbestos cases in retirement, because attorneys for his firm attended meetings as far back as November about the cases, which came to trial July 10.

It also suggested that the Angelos firm's employment discussions with Angeletti must have occurred before Jan. 1, when it hired a prominent attorney, supposedly to head the firm's lead paint legal effort.

The asbestos case on appeal involving the estate of James Scribner was heard by a Circuit Court jury in June 1999, but post-trial motions before Angeletti lasted until October, the motion said.

"To date, neither Judge Angeletti nor Mr. Angelos has answered the question of when they first began exploring the possibility of Judge Angeletti's joining the Angelos firm," the motion said.

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