In a verdict that could send tremors through Detroit, Ford Motor Co. was ordered yesterday to pay more than $14 million in damages to the widows of two Baltimore mechanics who died of a rare form of cancer after they were exposed to asbestos in brake parts supplied by the auto giant.
Nearly a month after the trial began in Baltimore Circuit Court, a six-member jury deliberated just 3 1/2 hours over two days before awarding $8,069,934 to the widow of Keith K. Grewe Sr. and $6,307,727 to the widow of Nollie P. Wood Sr.
Although the amounts awarded fall in line with similar cases -- thousands still are backlogged in the city -- these cases are believed to represent the first time that Ford has been found responsible for asbestos exposure from its brake linings.
"What the jury has said is that manufacturers, no matter the magnitude of their operation, are responsible for the products that they distribute and the potential harm that they [cause] to unsuspecting consumers," said Baltimore Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos, whose law firm represented Grewe.
"In the past, these cases have not been successfully prosecuted.
"This case clearly was and certainly establishes that brake pads containing asbestos were and continue to be hazardous, and manufacturers and distributors owe an obligation to warn people."
Ford attorney Steven R. Williams could not be reached for comment yesterday, but the Big Three automaker, based in Dearborn, Mich., is expected to appeal the decision to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
Ford argued that the mechanics were exposed to asbestos outside their work with Ford's brake pads and that, as a result, the company was not responsible for the disease -- mesothelioma -- associated with their asbestos exposure.
But lawyers for the two mechanics and their wives asserted that the men worked on Ford autos with Ford brakes, which were lined with asbestos.
Grewe, exposed to asbestos while working as a Baltimore brake mechanic, was 55 when he died Oct. 14, 1993.
His wife, Nancy Grewe, could not be reached for comment.
Wood was exposed to asbestos between 1948 and 1952 as a garage mechanic for the U.S. Post Office at 439 E. Preston St. in Baltimore, his attorneys said.
He retired from the postal service in 1971, was diagnosed with cancer in January 1990 and died at age 71 on May 26, 1990.
His wife, 78-year-old Rosanna G. Wood, also a retired postal worker, declined comment through her attorneys, Deborah K. Hines and Shepard A. Hoffman.
But Hoffman said, "There is no worse way, degrading, terrible way to die than this cancer. This cancer grows inside your chest, it crushes all your internal organs as it grows and it suffocates and strangles you until [you] waste away to nothing."
Hoffman said that companies such as Ford knew 50 years ago that asbestos was dangerous, but hid the hazards from the public.
With yesterday's verdict, Hoffman said, the message now is: "If you go around killing people, you're going to pay a price for it.
"What it says is, 'Make safe products.' "
Pub Date: 6/20/96