Largest Asbestos Injury Trial Opens
BALTIMORE (AP) _ The nation’s largest asbestos injury trial opened Tuesday with a lawyer accusing 13 companies of putting profits ahead of the welfare of workers exposed to the potentially cancer-causing mineral.
″These products have caused a reign of disease and death that has been visited upon an unsuspecting public,″ said Peter Angelos, who represents about 90 percent of the 8,555 plaintiffs.
″We’ll prove to you that these companies found profit more important than the protection of consumers from disease,″ he told a state-court jury.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages for illnesses they claim can be attributed to occupational exposure to asbestos.
The trial before Circuit Court Judge Marshall Levin consolidates cases filed in Baltimore and four Maryland counties. Levin said the trial is expected to take four months, with each side granted two months to present its case.
Levin said jurors must decide whether six plaintiffs whose medical histories will be profiled have asbestos-related diseases. Two of those plaintiffs are dead, one is hospitalized and three were in the courtroom.
If the jury decides the companies were guilty, damages for individual cases will be decided later at mini-trials.
The jury must also determine whether the companies knew asbestos was dangerous and whether the companies must pay damages to those who became ill.
Attorney Ronald L. Motley, another attorney representing the plaintiffs, said a 1945 letter from Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp. to a worker in Maine showed that the company was aware then of the dangers of asbestos.
″Asbestos fibers are snakelike, needle sharp, and penetrating to the respiratory organs and cause havoc,″ he said, reading from the letter.
Motley displayed what he said was a 1972 document that showed several companies, including National Gypsum Co., had hired a lobbyist to downplay the dangers of asbestos.
Referring to old corporate and industry statements on asbestos is a common tactic in asbestos trials, which have occurred across the nation for nearly two decades. Defendant companies generally argue they were unaware of the mineral’s potential harm.
Asbestos was used widely for fireproofing and insulation. Most companies stopped mining or using asbestos in the 1970s after it was linked to an array of disabling and sometimes fatal lung ailments.
Many of the Baltimore case plaintiffs were steel and shipyard workers who handled asbestos insulating material without protective equipment. They contend the companies knew of the mineral’s dangers and did nothing to protect workers. They are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
Other state judges have ordered similar consolidations to try to relieve a backlog of nearly 90,000 asbestos injury lawsuits nationwide.
About 30,000 federal cases have been consolidated in Philadelphia. But only pretrial proceedings will be handled there; any trials will be conducted in the originating court. Court officials hope that system will lead to more settlements.
The Baltimore defendants argued unsuccessfully that a consolidated trial is not the proper format and the cases of six plaintiffs do not represent the group as a whole.
Levin said one company, Fibreboard Corp., settled out of court Friday and another, Owens-Illinois Inc., settled with most of the plaintiffs. The judge said terms of the settlement were not released, even to him.
Besides Owens-Illinois, the defendants are AC&S Inc., Armstrong World Industries Inc., GAF Corp., Keene Corp., National Gypsum Co., MCIC, Owens- Corning Fiberglass Corp., Pittsburgh Corning Corp., Porter-Hayden Co., Quigley Co., U.S. Gypsum Co., W.R. Grace & Co.