Multimillion awards upheld in 2 deaths linked to asbestos


The Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday upheld most of the $3.8 million in damages a lower court had awarded the estates of two former Bethlehem Steel Corp. employees who died from mesothelioma, a rare cancer that has been linked to asbestos exposure.

The court affirmed a Baltimore Circuit Court jury's award to Leslie Balbos, who died from mesothelioma at age 70 in 1983, and Sutton Knuckles, who died at 65 in 1984.

Mr. Balbos was exposed to asbestos when he worked as a sheet-metal mechanic at Bethlehem Steel's Fairfield shipyard from 1942 to 1944. His estate won a $2 million verdict in the 1989 Circuit Court trial. The estate of Mr. Knuckles, an iron worker and erector at the Key Highway shipyard, gained a $1.8 million verdict.

The ruling was a defeat for Eagle-Picher Industries Inc., Owens-Illinois Inc. and the Pittsburgh Corning Corp., manufacturers of asbestos products used at the two sites, and Acands Inc. and the Porter Hayden Co., which sold and installed asbestos insulation to shipyards.

The court ruled that there was not enough evidence linking Porter Hayden to the asbestos used at Key Highway. Consequently, the firm does not have to pay damages for the asbestos used there. David M. Layton, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said yesterday that he was reviewing the decision and had yet to calculate how that will affect the awards.

Mr. Layton said Mr. Balbos' estate is being administered by his son, and Mr. Knuckle's estate by a sister.

In a 63-page decision written by Judge Lawrence F. Rodowksy, the court agreed with the jury's decision that the firms negligently failed to warn workers about the health hazards associated with asbestos exposure. The companies had argued that they were unable to warn workers because too little was known about the hazards of asbestos before 1944. But the court said there had been widespread knowledge throughout the industry of the product's potential for causing lung damage as early as the 1930s, and it upheld the jury's verdict that a warning could have prevented the dangers.

It was the second time this week that the state's highest court has upheld compensatory damage awards to asbestos victims.

The inhalation of tiny asbestos fibers has been linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma, an always fatal cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen.

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