Angelos sets sights on arsenic

Lawyer's ads signal plan to sue over tainted park

June 27, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,sun reporter

Peter G. Angelos built one fortune out of asbestos. He earned a second off Big Tobacco. Could he build yet a third out of arsenic?

If he doesn't, it won't be for lack of trying.

The Baltimore lawyer, who parlayed his cutting-edge role representing workers who were exposed to asbestos into the ownership of the Baltimore Orioles, has placed advertisements in The Sun trolling for possible clients who might have been harmed by arsenic in South Baltimore's Swann Park.

"If you or members of your family have regularly visited Swann Park or have lived near Swann Park, you may wish to consult an attorney," says the Angelos ad, which also offers a "no-charge consultation."

Swann Park lies beside the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, next to the former site of an Allied Chemical plant. After tests this year showed high levels of arsenic at the park, Baltimore's health commissioner said the poison came from that factory, which closed in 1976. Arsenic in the environment has been identified as a cause of lung cancer.

Allied Chemical was later acquired by Honeywell International, making the Morristown, N.J., giant the potential deep-pockets target of any litigation that could emerge from the contamination.

Victoria Streitfeld, a spokeswoman for Honeywell, said the company does not comment on pending or possible litigation.

Mary Koch, a lawyer who works for Angelos, said the firm has signed up clients connected with Swann Park, including people who worked at the plant, who played in the park and who lived or still live in the neighborhood. She said no cases have been filed but that decisions will be made "in the near future."

Honeywell and Angelos have been adversaries before. Last year, the lawyer -- representing a Baltimore community group -- filed a motion to throw out an agreement between the company and the Maryland Department of the Environment that gave Honeywell 17 years to remove or contain chromium waste that had been dumped at the site of the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

Angelos contended that the agreement should have compelled Honeywell to remove chromium at a half-dozen sites around Baltimore Harbor.

Now Angelos apparently has the company in his sights again. Two weeks ago, a woman who identified herself as a lawyer from Angelos' office attended a community meeting on the Swann Park issue at Digital Harbor High School.

A move against a leading chemical company over arsenic contamination would be a logical next step in Angelos' legal career of more than four decades. He was one of the first attorneys to commit heavily to lawsuits against employers who allowed their employees to be exposed to asbestos -- which has been linked to lung disease and cancer.

In 1992, Angelos won a landmark judgment worth hundreds of millions of dollars against asbestos manufacturers. By 1993 his personal fortune was sufficient to allow him to become the majority partner after a group bought the Orioles for $173 million. Since then, his firm has continued to rack up judgments and settlements worth hundreds of millions of dollars in asbestos cases.

Angelos' firm also took on the tobacco industry on behalf of Maryland -- agreeing to represent the state for a 25 percent share of any judgment at a time when it was not clear the outcome would be favorable. When the state became part of a $4.4 billion multistate settlement, Angelos' contract called for his firm to be paid more than $1 billion.

After a political outcry and an unfavorable judgment by a national arbitration panel, Angelos eventually settled with the state in 2002 for a $150 million payout.

Since then, the trial lawyer has launched legal action against a number of wealthy industries -- including paint manufacturers over lead poisoning, mortgage lenders over allegedly predatory practices and oil companies over well contamination from the gasoline additive MTBE.

Two years ago, Angelos took out newspaper ads in connection with the MTBE issue. Such tactics have brought protests from trial lawyers' critics.

Todd Lamb, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, described the Angelos ads as "symptomatic of our times."

"Advertisements like these from personal injury lawyers are designed to scare people, first and foremost," Lamb said. If people suspect they have been injured, he said, "their first call should be to a doctor and certainly not to a lawyer."

Abraham Dash, a law professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore who teaches legal ethics, said such advertising is legal under Supreme Court decisions and ethical under the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct.

"I don't like it," Dash said. "Perhaps I'm an old-timer, but I think it cheapens the profession."

But Koch said the ads are beneficial to both the Angelos firm and prospective clients. "They're effective in the sense that they let people be aware of a problem they may not be aware of," she said.michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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Find previous coverage at baltimoresun.com/arsenic

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