Asbestos distributor cleared by jury

The first in a planned series of "minitrials" to decide th individual claims of more than 8,500 plaintiffs in the nation's largest asbestos personal injury case ended yesterday with a Baltimore jury ruling an asbestos distributor's products did not cause diseases contracted by four ex-Bethlehem Steel workers.

The jury ruled yesterday in favor of Porter Hayden Co. and against the claims of: Dillard Howell, 68-year-old former Beth Steel worker who contracted lung cancer; Albert Kirby, a steel mill worker who died of mesothelioma in 1990 at age 72; and William Eberwein, another mill worker who died of mesothelioma in 1988 at age 71. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen whose only known cause is asbestos exposure.


Deliberations in the trial began Tuesday, and the jury returned its first verdict later that day, finding that former laborer Joseph Hinton, who worked at Beth Steel's Sparrows Point mill and died in 1991 at age 66, did not contract his fatal lung cancer from asbestos sold by Porter Hayden Co. of Baltimore.

Porter Hayden was the only company left as a defendant in the initial minitrial; nine other defendant companies settled all claims with the four workers.


The trial is the second stage of a procedure that Baltimore Circuit Judge Marshall A. Levin ordered in 1990 to try 8,555 asbestos personal injury cases, most of them involving former workers at the Sparrows Point steel mill. Last year, in a "megatrial" covering all 8,555 workers, a jury found that seven makers of asbestos products were negligent when they made or sold asbestos to Bethlehem Steel and other plants, and that the companies should pay workers' damages for health effects and pain and suffering plus punitive damages.

Now, each "minitrial" is slated to focus on up to 10 workers at a time. Since last year's jury has already established that the companies are liable, the minitrials are limited to figuring out whether individual workers were really sick, whether their injuries came from asbestos made or sold by the defendant companies, and how much money the workers or their survivors should get.

The jury's findings in the first minitrial seemed to stun the plaintiffs' lawyers, who renewed a motion that Judge Levin find in their favor on the mesothelioma cases, notwithstanding the jury's verdict. Judge Levin has not ruled on that motion.

Testimony in the trial showed Mr. Hinton and Mr. Howell were cigarette smokers, but two jurors interviewed after yesterday's verdict said that the smoking was not a major factor in their deliberations. They said they weren't convinced that the men suffered from asbestosis, which asbestos companies claim is a necessary precondition to lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

In the mesothelioma cases, the jury found the men had been exposed to lethal levels of asbestos before they came into contact with Porter Hayden products, according to jury foreman James Steiner.

No date has been set for the next minitrial. Judge Levin would not say yesterday whether that trial would be conducted before or after a "cross-claims" trial, in which companies assessed damages in the three plaintiffs' individual claims heard during the megatrial will try to prove some of the blame belongs to more than 100 other companies that were also involved in the manufacture, sale or installation of asbestos.