Jurors Assess Punitive Damages in Nation’s Largest Asbestos Trial
BALTIMORE (AP) _ Four companies that made or distributed asbestos products must pay punitive damages up to 2 1/2 times their share of compensatory damages, jurors said Monday in the nation’s largest consolidation of asbestos personal-injury cases.
It was the fourth and final stage of a five-month trial observed closely by judges and attorneys from across the country. About 86,000 asbestos injury cases are pending nationwide, and an industry analyst said they could be significantly influenced by the Baltimore trial.
The punitive-damage formulas apply to three sample plaintiffs and will be used in later mini-trials to decide the claims of 8,549 Maryland workers who contend they became ill from asbestos exposure.
″It’s a verdict the plaintiffs can live with,″ said Peter Angelos, an lawyer representing most of the plaintiffs. ″But I believe in the case of two of the defendants penalties should have been assessed higher.″
Angelos said compensatory and punitive damages from the mini-trials could reach $1 billion. Each company’s exact share of compensatory damages hasn’t been determined.
Compensatory damages pay for actual losses; punitive damages are extra payments assessed as punishment.
The punitive damages were assessed against GAF Corp., Keene Corp., Pittsburgh Corning Corp. and Porter-Hayden Co.
The plaintiffs, most of whom worked as pipe fitters, boilermakers, shipbuilders or steelworkers, claimed they got cancer, lung diseases and other illnesses because of asbestos exposure on the job.
Companies generally stopped using the fibrous, heat-resistant mineral beginning in the 1970s. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a regulation that would have banned most remaining uses of asbestos by 1996, but a federal appeals court overturned the rule in 1991.
The companies argued they shouldn’t pay any extra damages as punishment. Plaintiffs’ attorneys asked for punitive damages up to four times the amount of compensatory damages.
The jury deliberated four hours over two days before deciding that GAF, the largest company involved in the lawsuit, should pay punitive damages amounting to 2 1/2 times its share of compensatory damages.
Keene and Pittsburgh Corning were ordered to pay 1 1/2 times their share of compensatory damages. Porter-Hayden, the smallest company, was ordered to pay punitive damages amounting to 35 percent of its compensatory damages.
Attorneys for both sides picked six sample plaintiffs at the start of the trial to determine whether damages were warranted for any of the other 8,549 plaintiffs in the case.
The jury ruled July 23 that six companies must pay $11.2 million in compensatory damages to three of the plaintiffs. Three other plaintiffs were judged not entitled to damages.
Levin earlier ruled that two other defendants, AC&S Inc. and MCIC Inc., weren’t liable for punitive damages.
Attorneys for the companies said they will challenge the jury’s verdicts on a number of constitutional grounds, including the belief that Circuit Judge Marvin Levin was wrong to consolidate the Maryland cases.
″We’re not happy. It should have been zero,″ said Warren Weaver, an attorney for Porter-Hayden. ″We shouldn’t have been in this situation to begin with.″
Stuart Rickerson, general counsel for Keene, and Alan Senter, a spokesman for GAF, said they were confident the case would be overturned on appeal.
Bill Harvard, an attorney for Pittsburgh Corning, said the consolidation unfairly combined undeserving claims with deserving ones.
Rulings in the consolidated trial could have a significant impact on asbestos cases nationwide, said Scott Jacobs, editor of the newsletter Mealey’s Litigation Report: Asbestos.
″If judges perceive Judge Levin has successfully conducted this trial, they might move towards consolidation,″ he said. ″That’s a natural reaction from those judges because a lot of them are closely associated with Levin. He commands a lot of respect.″