Maryland high court weighs deadlines in asbestos lawsuits

Maryland’s highest court is weighing whether to give workers who were sickened by asbestos exposure more time to sue their employers.

State law now allows 20 years for workers or their families to make claims regarding illness or death from exposure to asbestos. But a case heard Friday by the Maryland Court of Appeals in Annapolis involves a steamfitter, James F. Piper, who worked at a Maryland power plant in the 1970s and died more than four decades later from mesothelioma.

Advocates say that if Piper’s estate wins the case, it could potentially open the door to lawsuits from others in similar situations who did not get sick until after the deadline to sue had passed. A coalition of unions and trade associations says the number could be in the tens of thousands of cases.

Those arguing to defeat it say such a ruling would give the court the power to change state law, and open the door to new liability for many companies.

Piper was a steamfitter at the Morgantown Generating Station in Charles County, where he worked near a Westinghouse turbine that was being insulated with asbestos in 1970. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2013 and died the next year.

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that can form in cells lining the chest, abdomen and internal organs, according to the American Cancer Society. Asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma in the chest, known as pleural mesothelioma.

Daniel Brown, an attorney for Piper’s estate from the Bethesda firm of Brown Gould Kiely, called Maryland’s 20-year deadline to bring a lawsuit “inherently unreasonable” for mesothelioma victims. He said that unlike other illnesses caused by asbestos, mesothelioma might not develop until decades after an individual was exposed. There’s a lack of fairness in the law that limits workers to suing only within 20 years after exposure, he said.

Brown also contends that Piper was exposed to asbestos before June 30, 1970. In the early 1990s lawmakers said lawsuits arising from exposure after that date had to be filed within 20 years

Piper’s case has already failed in Baltimore City Circuit Court and the second-highest court, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Brown said if those rulings are upheld by the Court of Appeals, “mesothelioma victims who worked in the construction industry will be denied access to the courts.”

Christopher G. Conley — a Georgia-based attorney representing CBS Corp. — current owner of the company once known as Westinghouse Electric — said Maryland lawmakers carefully crafted the rules for filing lawsuits, balancing the needs of workers and employers.

He said Piper’s estate simply “does not like where the line was drawn,” and argued it’s not the role of the court to make a rule that it believes is “more fair.” Changing the deadline would be the job of the legislature, Conley said.

The case has drawn the attention of others involved in litigating asbestos cases.

The Maryland Defense Counsel, an organization of civil defense attorneys, filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of CBS. The brief states that if the rules for the deadline to file cases are changed, businesses would lose “vital” protections that were put into place “to protect businesses from facing construction-related claims like these years after the fact.”

CBS’ stance was also supported by a business coalition that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and others. In its brief, the coalition said “the burdens of litigation should not be endless.”

Meanwhile, a group representing unions and building trades supports Piper’s claim. The group wrote that the lower-court rulings are “depriving tens of thousands of citizens of their respective rights to an effective remedy.”

The Court of Appeals judges did not indicate at Friday’s hearing when they would rule. The question for the appeals court is whether the time limit should apply to Piper’s case. If the estate wins, it could revive its complaint for damages.

There have been more than 1 million asbestos cases in Maryland courts, though that number has dwindled as use of asbestos in construction and manufacturing has become less prevalent, said Donald Gifford, the Jacob A. France professor of torts at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

The conflict over how long workers have to sue is one that’s arisen in courts throughout the country, he said.

There’s plenty at stake for both plaintiffs and defendants, Gifford said. “It certainly is going to affect more than one case, and more than a few,” he said.

Gifford said state lawmakers could revisit the rules for filing lawsuits for new cases going forward.

Some lawyers — including with the Law Offices of Peter Angelos, owner of the Orioles who has specialized in asbestos litigation -- have said thousands of asbestos cases are backlogged in Baltimore.

An attorney with the Angelos firm testified before state lawmakers this fall that there are 22,000 pending active cases and another 7,000 inactive cases from workers who have not fallen ill but have filed paperwork to reserve their right to sue if they do become ill.

Some asbestos attorneys say they would like to have a way to consolidate the cases to push them through the system, which has previously been rejected by state lawmakers.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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