'Mini-trials' are starting today in asbestos case Individual claims being weighed in Circuit Court here

The nation's largest asbestos personal injury case moves into its next phase today in Baltimore Circuit Court with the start of the first in a series of "mini-trials" to decide the individual claims of more than 8,500 Marylanders.

Opening statements were to begin today in a trial with a format allowing 10 plaintiffs to present claims that they were injured on the job by exposure to deadly asbestos fibers. The start of the mini-trials comes seven months after thousands of shipyard and construction workers won the largest-ever consolidated asbestos trial, where the broader issues were decided.


During that five-month trial, a jury found seven companies negligent and liable for failing to warn workers about the potential health hazards posed by exposure to asbestos. The jury also ruled four of the companies will have to pay up to $2.50 for every dollar of compensatory damages assessed against them.

With those issues decided, juries in the mini-trials will be asked to rule on whether the plaintiffs have suffered asbestos-related diseases and, if so, whether exposure to the defendants' products was a substantially contributing factor. Any damages awarded would be subject to the punitive damage "multipliers" assigned to different asbestos companies in last year's consolidated trial.


During that trial, six individual plaintiffs were allowed to present their claims to add a human element. The jury found in favor of three of those plaintiffs, awarding $11.2 million in damages to three former Bethlehem Steel Corp. workers whose health problems -- and, in two cases, deaths -- were caused by exposure to asbestos. The jurors found in favor of the defendant companies on the other three claims, saying they were not convinced the respiratory ailments were caused by exposure to asbestos.

The initial mini-trial is to last no more than four weeks under a ruling by Judge Marshall A. Levin. Judge Levin, who presided over last year's mammoth trial, said yesterday he will oversee the first three mini-trials.

After that, two judges from the city Circuit Court will join him in hearing mini-trials. Also, retired judges will hear cases during the peak vacation season in August and September.

"But if I can't have my wish, I'm going to make do with the resources I have by concentrating first on the most serious cases," the judge said.

He has ruled that, starting with the third mini-trial, the most serious medical cases will go to trial first. The judge said about 600 of the cases in the city involve malignant cases of mesothelioma, lung cancer and other cancers.

Judge Levin has ruled that none of the 6,000 plaintiffs in the consolidated case whose claims originated in Baltimore can receive punitive damages until any and all compensatory damages awarded at the mini-trials have been paid.

Plaintiffs in this initial trial include 10 men -- three of whom have died -- who developed diseases ranging from mesothelioma to lung cancer to colon cancer after working at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant, plaintiff's attorney David L. Palmer said.

Attorney David L. Palmer identified the plaintiffs as: William Eberwein, who died in 1988 at age 70; Albert Kirby, who died in 1990 at 72; Joseph Hinton, who died in 1991 at 66; Dillard Howell, 68; James Brinkmeier, 60; Preston Mobley, 80; Alexander James, 68; Henry Farley, 68; Robert Graves, 71; and Earl Bradsher, 59.


Pittsburgh Corning Corp. and MCIC were dropped as defendants in the case after reaching settlements with the plaintiffs last week, Mr. Palmer said. Remaining as defendants in the case as of yesterday afternoon -- Mr. Palmer said settlement talks were ongoing -- were AC&S; Inc., GAF Corp., Keene Corp. and Porter-Hayden Co.