Lawmakers seek clarity on asbestos cases stacked up in Baltimore courts

Maryland state lawmakers, concerned about a years-long backlog of asbestos cases lingering in Baltimore City courts, sought clarity Tuesday from attorneys who represent those sickened by the insulating material and lawyers who represent industry.

But the sides could not agree on the number of people awaiting their day in court — or even whether there is a backlog at all.

“One side says there are thousands of cases ready for trial and one side says there are zero,” said state Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “Both can’t be true.”

Zirkin said he called the hearing because Baltimore courts have long struggled to clear asbestos cases, largely from workers at the seaport, in shipbuilding and construction trades who were exposed to the carcinogenic material and got or feared getting cancer or other, non-cancerous illnesses. He wanted to hear if a recent change in the method of funneling cases through a special court docket was working and if there was any legislative measure that could smooth the process.

After two and a half hours of testimony, he asked both sides to send him briefs so he and other lawmakers could sort through their arguments.

Lawyers from the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, which made a name and a fortune beginning decades ago litigating asbestos injury cases, said there were more than 22,000 active cases in the Baltimore courts. They said there might also be 7,000 inactive cases, in which people who were exposed to asbestos on the job were reserving the right to file a lawsuit if they became sick later.

If the firm was able to staff every case and fill the hundreds of trial slots every year, lawyer Armand J. Volta Jr. said, it would still take decades more to clear them all.

Volta said the firm planned to revisit an attempt made years ago — and rejected by the courts — to consolidate the cases and push them through en masse. In the meantime, he said, more court resources might help.

Venable LLP attorney Theodore F. Roberts represented the Wallace & Gale Asbestos Settlement Trust, which was set up by the former Baltimore contractor in bankruptcy following a large number of asbestos claims. Roberts said Tuesday that firms such as Angelos’ were not even asking the courts to schedule cases in open court dates in the city and surrounding jurisdictions.

Instead, he said, “They want the courts or legislature to build them a superhighway” to push through cases, some of which might not have merit.

Roberts said the solution was to allow the cases to go through the normal process, which has been amended to allow for attorney conferences to move cases more quickly in small groups to trial or other resolution.

Judge W. Michel Pierson, a Baltimore City Circuit Court administrative judge who also testified, agreed that the new system was helping clear cases more quickly. He said more than 180 cases in 2016 and more than 250 in 2017 were resolved this way.

But he, too, could not clarify exactly how many cases were pending. He said many were resolved but never cleared from the court system, and the courts were working to identify them now and close them. He said the system will continue to work out the kinks and clear more cases.

“I don’t mean to put this forward as great progress, but it’s a beginning of a process that began in 2014,” he said. “We’re in the process of getting cases resolved.”

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