GAF Corp. said yesterday that it has settled with more than 8,500 Maryland plaintiffs who sued the company over injuries from asbestos products made by a GAF subsidiary.
The settlement may mark a turning point toward resolution of the biggest consolidated asbestos case in the nation.
The terms of the deal between the New Jersey-based chemical and building products conglomerate and the workers, most of whom were exposed to asbestos at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point steel mill, were not disclosed.
But several attorneys involved in the case said GAF's decision last year to spurn a group settlement by other asbestos companies, which it thought was too expensive, probably backfired.
Since that decision, a Baltimore Circuit Court jury found that asbestos was unreasonably dangerous when it was sold, and that GAF and other asbestos companies knew it or should have known it. That jury awarded one injured worker and the heirs of two deceased workers more than $11 million in compensatory damages and also ordered punitive damages, greatly boosting the leverage the workers had in settlement talks.
"The impact of the verdict certainly played a part in the ultimate settlement figure," said Peter G. Angelos, whose Baltimore law firm represents more than 7,900 Maryland plaintiffs in asbestos cases.
Mr. Angelos said the settlement, first reported in yesterday's Daily Record, provides for workers or their survivors to get an amount of money that varies according to the diseases they have. He refused to disclose those figures but said individual workers can reject the settlement and keep fighting in court for more money.
Patients with diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen that is associated with asbestos exposure, will get the biggest settlements. Workers with disorders such as asbestosis, an often disabling lung disease, get less money.
The plaintiffs most likely to spurn the deal would be those suffering from especially severe cases of asbestosis, because advanced asbestosis can cause breathing and other medical problems far greater than the mild afflictions the settlement anticipates, Mr. Angelos said.
GAF spokesman Robert K. Steidlitz wouldn't comment on the settlement. The company released a short statement saying the BTC deal "represents another step in the company's ongoing effort to put its asbestos personal injury litigation behind it."
Attorneys in the case said the settlement by GAF could signal the beginning of the end to a fight between the 8,555 Maryland workers and a list of defendant companies that once numbered more than 100. With settlements and dismissals, that number is now down to five -- Keene Corp., Porter Hayden Co., Pittsburgh Corning Corp., MCIC Inc., and AC and S Inc.
"It may very well be the card that starts the final round of settlement discussions," said Louis G. Close Jr., a Baltimore attorney representing Porter Hayden. "Porter Hayden is hopeful to settle."
But another attorney said the resolution may be farther off. Last year's case in Baltimore Circuit Court resolved the issues that are common to all 8,555 workers' cases and set the stage for a series of up to 850 "mini-trials" in which juries would assess individual workers' injuries and award damages. Some defendants still have post-trial motions pending and may appeal to the Maryland Court of Appeals and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even after the appeals of last year's case are done, the source said, the Baltimore asbestos litigation won't be finished until all the companies accused of negligently making or selling asbestos finish a separate trial in which they sue each other to figure out who owes what to whom.
Asbestos companies have complained bitterly about the consolidated trial format Baltimore Circuit Judge Marshall A. Levin ordered in April 1990, contending it is unconstitutional and that it puts so much pressure on companies to settle that uninjured people collect tens of thousands of dollars.
Judge Levin has said that his order follows the national trend for court management of asbestos cases, which are so numerous they have threatened to bog down courts nationwide, potentially delaying trials for years at a time.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring material that was used for decades as thermal and acoustical insulation in ships and buildings. The inhalation of tiny asbestos fibers has been linked to cancer, respiratory disease and other health problems.
The Baltimore case is the largest consolidated case in the nation, and overall, Maryland courts are home to about 10,000 of the approximately 130,000 asbestos cases pending in state courts around the country.
About 1,500 cases have been filed since the 1990 deadline for inclusion in the consolidated case. "We got about 60 the other day," Mr. Close said.
The first mini-trial is currently being held before Judge Levin. All of the defendants except Porter Hayden have settled with the mini-trial's plaintiffs, who originally numbered 10. Porter Hayden has settled with all but four of the 10.