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Thousands of Maryland asbestos-poisoning lawsuits that waited years for trial are being dropped or dismissed

Thousands of asbestos-poisoning lawsuits that have been stuck in a decades-long backlog in Baltimore Circuit Court are now being dropped as no longer viable.

Plaintiffs attorneys led by the Peter G. Angelos law firm pushed in recent years to lump several thousand pending cases together for settlement — a strategy that once helped Angelos win a fortune’s worth of compensation for people who worked with asbestos and their attorneys.

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Supporters of the effort said consolidation would speed the road to justice for victims of asbestos poisoning in the workplace, but critics argued that combining the workers’ claims would tilt the legal scales in favor of plaintiffs.

Neither judges nor the legislature agreed to the move. Now, with that effort apparently failed, cases are being dropped en masse.

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The Angelos firm recently told the Baltimore Circuit Court, which has handled asbestos lawsuits from across the state, that it had dropped more than 3,800 cases since March of last year. The firm has about two-thirds of the asbestos cases pending in the court.

The Law Offices of Peter T. Nicholl, which has most of the rest, has also been dismissing cases at a rate of more than 150 a month.

A trust that represents a bankrupt contractor that sold and installed insulation containing asbestos says it has been dismissed from 10,900 cases. “At the present pace, the so-called backlog should be cleared in the next two to three years,” it told the court in January.

The trust, set up to resolve asbestos claims against the long-defunct contractor, is a defendant in many of the lawsuits. It contends that the dismissals show “it is now undeniable” that the majority of the cases are not viable.

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The dismissals are painful and frustrating for people like Cynthia Molineiro of Pasadena, who waited years for a day in court.

Molineiro’s father, Edgar Wooten, worked at Bethlehem Steel. He died in 2005 — more than a decade after he first filed suit. Molineiro, who has childhood memories of her mother shaking particles off her father’s clothes when he got home from work, said she got a letter last year from the Angelos firm saying the case was being dismissed.

“These people knew it was toxic to the workers,” Molineiro said of the defendants in such lawsuits. She’s unhappy that her father’s case has ended in this way.

The backlog was not simply a function of cases languishing in an overburdened court system, but because one of several defendants — insulation contractor Wallace & Gale Co. — was mired in bankruptcy proceedings.

Lawyers on both sides declined to comment for this article.

But in court, the Angelos firm, now being managed by Peter Angelos’ son, Louis Angelos, disputed that the cases it is dismissing were never viable.

“As cases are set in, we are looking at those, again speaking with clients in cases that may not be as significant, or clients who have received a certain amount of compensation and don’t wish to proceed further, or clients who are now the grandchildren of clients … and are vetting those cases again as they come up to reduce what needs to go forward … to reduce the amount of judicial resources necessary in cases that may not necessarily warrant them,” Armand Volta, an attorney for the firm, said at a July court hearing.

The Angelos firm hasn’t given up on finding a way to consolidate its cases. While The Baltimore Sun was reporting this story, its attorneys sent a letter to the court Jan. 5 saying they were engaging in “global settlement discussions,” and asking for the court’s help.

“Focused or targeted consolidations, where appropriate and consistent with precedent, are an effective tool towards the resolution of cases,” the attorneys wrote. “We believe the Court can and should play an integral role in assisting with ongoing settlement discussions in order to advance the likelihood of resolution of these cases.”

Consolidation was part of an asbestos litigation strategy that helped Peter Angelos win more than a billion dollars’ worth of settlements in the early 1990s.

But in more recent rulings in cases involving asbestos and cigarette lawsuits, the courts have sharply limited consolidation as an option. Defendants — who include manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos, as well as contractors that used it — argued that consolidation undermines their right to have judges or juries weigh each case on its merits.

Asbestos, commonly used as an insulation material throughout the 20th century, has been linked to many types of cancer and lung diseases. Thousands of workers in Maryland have brought legal cases after being exposed through their work in shipyards and steel mills, as well as at churches, school buildings and commercial properties.

The dropped lawsuits don’t mean the claims have been abandoned. The cases are instead being referred to a bankruptcy court, where they could still be resolved, but at a fraction of the amount.

Part of the reason the cases have remained in limbo for so many years was that Wallace & Gale was going through bankruptcy from 1984 until 2002, when the settlement trust was established. Many of the cases involve multiple defendants, meaning pending claims were already paid by co-defendants. Wallace & Gale’s status kept its part of the claims alive.

Many of the plaintiffs have since died.

The Wallace & Gale trust said in July that it had participated in 4,533 status conferences and been granted dismissals in 3,405 cases — or 75% of the cases called to date at that time. It said it had settled 232 of the cases: a ratio of 22 dismissals for every settlement.

Ted Roberts, an attorney for the trust, told judges that the process has “shined the light on what these cases are and are not, and … the entire dynamic of the program has changed now.”

The trust remained a defendant in 26,000 cases at the time.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have complained that the backlog stems in part from not enough judges to hear the cases. Circuit Judge W. Michel Pierson, who is retired but continues to oversee the docket, has said the court has enough judges for trials, but cases are dismissed before they reach that stage.

“We have 500 trial slots this year that nobody is using,” Pierson told legislators.

To be sure, some trials have continued. The Angelos firm took an Anne Arundel County man’s case to trial in 2017 and won a $14 million jury verdict that was reduced to $7 million and upheld by the appellate courts. The man’s claims dated to the early 1970s. The suit alleged he contracted mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with asbestos, after being exposed to insulation products that Wallace & Gale installed during the construction of Loch Raven High School.

To help address the backlog of other cases, the Angelos firm pushed to create an office — the Office of Asbestos Case Mediation and Resolution — that would have offered an alternative resolution option.

Judiciary leaders, including Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, objected, arguing that judges have an appropriate system to review cases and hold trials.

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