A Baltimore circuit judge rejected Wednesday a plan by the law firm of Peter G. Angelos to combine more than 10,000 asbestos-related lawsuits, questioning whether the cases caught in a massive backlog have enough in common to be heard in concert.
"This Court is well aware of the need to provide justice for the large number of parties whose cases still languish on this docket," Judge John M. Glynn wrote. "But the current proposal is entirely too vague and unsupported to inspire confidence."
Angelos' firm argued that Baltimore courts' policy, which prioritizes the cases of the sickest plaintiffs, leaves many clients little chance of getting their cases heard. The firm wanted to consolidate many such cases — using a small group of plaintiffs to stand in for many others, obtaining jury verdicts and then using those verdicts to more rapidly deal with the remaining cases.
The technique was part of an asbestos litigation strategy that helped Angelos build his fortune in the early 1990s. Courts have been moving away from the approach, and Glynn's ruling was a victory for the potential defendants in the case — manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos, as well as contractors that used it — who said consolidation would undermine their right to a fair hearing.
Asbestos, commonly used as an insulation material throughout the 20th century, has been linked to many types of cancer and lung diseases. Maryland has many cases because thousands of workers were exposed through their work in shipyards and steel mills.
Glynn, who oversees asbestos cases in Baltimore, acknowledged that the city has a backlog that needs to be dealt with somehow, but said the plaintiffs' lawyers had offered too little detail on how the cases might move forward.
Theodore M. Flerlage Jr., an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed that the judge did not offer a clearer way ahead. He said "the clock is ticking" for his clients and something should be done to resolve their cases.
It's not in the interests of the defendants to get the process moving more quickly, Flerlage said.
"If you stick your head in the sand long enough there won't be any plaintiffs left," he said.
But Lisa A. Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, an industry group that has watched the case closely, said that Glynn made the right move. She called the Angelos plan an "outrageous" attempt to force defendants into "mass settlements."
Glynn wrote that he welcomed further discussion on how to reform Baltimore's approach to handling such cases, but did not decide on any one idea.
The judge suggested that large numbers of cases could be arbitrated, or that the General Assembly could take up the issue.
The most promising approach, Glynn wrote, might be to adapt an approach used in a Pennsylvania federal court that requires plaintiffs to submit detailed information about their claims so cases can be more easily prioritized or thrown out.