A Baltimore judge on Monday will hear an ambitious plan to revive the long-dormant cases of more than 13,000 people who say they have been sickened by asbestos, an attempt by the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos to return to a strategy that made a fortune for its founder.
In the early 1990s, the city established a two-tiered system to deal with an overwhelming amount of asbestos suits, prioritizing the cases of the sickest people while delaying trial for people who claimed to have been exposed, but had no symptoms. The Angelos firm says there are many people who have since become ill but now have no real chance of getting their cases through congested courts.
In a court memo, opposing lawyers in the case called the plan "a backdoor attempt" to undermine a system that works and has been widely adopted by courts across the country. Opponents say the firm is trying to bully potential defendants into settling in weak cases.
The proposal would revive an approach in which the Baltimore Circuit Court would consider a large volume of cases at one time, using a few examples to establish broad links between asbestos and health problems. That would clear the plaintiffs to sue for damages in groups based on the circumstances of their cases.
"We've done it before and it's been successful before and we need to do it now because we have all these cases that need resolution," said Theodore M. Flerlage, one of the Angelos attorneys involved in the case. "There are lot of people who have been waiting a long time and are sick now and need their day in court."
The firm won settlements of more than $1 billion in asbestos suits in 1992 alone.
The Angelos plan does not name specific defendants, but they would likely include manufacturers, suppliers and contractors who produced and worked with asbestos, Flerlage said. The plaintiffs were all exposed in Maryland, he added. Asbestos, used throughout the 20th century in insulation and building materials, has been linked to many types of cancer and lung diseases.
Business groups and possible defendants argue that the strategy would violate their rights to a fair hearing.
"It is extremely concerning to see a movement by the Angelos firm to turn back the clock to an outdated and discredited method of asbestos litigation," said Harold Kim, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, a group opposing the Angelos plan.
"There's a very high likelihood that a lot of these people aren't sick and their claims are supported by discredited doctors."
Kim said that trying to rush cases through as Angelos is proposing will allow diagnoses based on the opinions of dodgy doctors to slip through the cracks.
"It's basically an attempt to force large settlements," he added. "You flood the system with complaints and you try to leverage settlements."
Kim pointed to an investigation that started in a Texas federal court and showed that doctors had questionably diagnosed thousands of patients with asbestos related illnesses. Misconduct could go undiscovered if defendants are pressured into settling, Kim said.
Flerlage said he's not aware of any of his clients having been diagnosed by a doctor who has been shown to have made improper diagnoses.
"As far as I know, at least involving this firm, this issue has not come up," he said, and added that plaintiffs would still need to show that they were sick as a result of asbestos exposure.
In court filings, defense attorneys also criticized the Angelos plan as too vague, arguing that his firm should name plaintiffs and defendants. A memo outlining the plan only says it would apply to people with a range of cancers and other illnesses — but not mesothelioma, a type of cancer closely associated with asbestos exposure.
Flerlage declined to make any of the plaintiffs available for interview, citing the ongoing litigation.
John M. Glynn, a retired judge who runs the city's asbestos docket and will preside at the hearing Monday, said in an interview that Angelos' firm probably wants to bunch the cases together because they typically pay out less and might not be worth pursuing individually.
"I'm sure from the plaintiffs' perspective it would be more desirable if you could settle them in one group," he added.
In the early 1990s, Angelos' firm handled two big sets of asbestos cases, bringing in large payouts for many of the clients, and for Angelos — who used some of the proceeds to buy the Baltimore Orioles. He personally took in about $9 million in 1994, for example, according to a Forbes magazine analysis at the time.
But in the face of an overwhelming number of new asbestos filings — Baltimore's shipyards and steel mills exposed thousands of people to asbestos — the court set up an inactive docket where people who were not sick could wait. Other cities followed suit and large, so-called "consolidated" cases became rarer.
Glynn said the courts handle a small number of cases from the inactive docket each month and one or two a year go to trial. In a court filing, Angelos' team argued that the mass trials wrapped up cases in less a decade that would have taken 35 years under normal conditions.
His firm wrote that the courts should return to that model to handle the volume of litigation and use 15 test cases to get verdicts that could be used to speed through others by establishing, for example, how asbestos causes the types of cancer the plaintiffs have.
But potential defendants in the cases question whether the Angelos plan would actually see more cases resolved, and argue that it could serve to gum up the works even further.
"It will not yield any great results apart from bringing the civil docket in Baltimore to a halt," said Thurman W. Zollicoffer, Jr., a former city solicitor now representing Union Carbide, a potential defendant in some of the cases.
For his part, Glynn is clear-eyed about his role: He must decide whether the Angelos plan is better than the system now in place.
"You've got to be fair and you've got to be efficient, and balancing those two factors is ultimately my job," he said.
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