Law firm looking to change the way asbestos cases are handled in Baltimore courts | COMMENTARY
By Harold Kim
For The Baltimore Sun|
Feb 25, 2020 at 1:02 PM
The Law Firm of Peter Angelos — the most powerful firm in Baltimore — is using its political muscle to get state legislators to end a hugely successful court procedure that ensures justice for victims, not paydays for plaintiffs’ lawyers.
The Baltimore asbestos docket is relativity obscure, but over the past 20 years, it’s clogged Baltimore City courts with questionable lawsuits while giving plaintiffs’ lawyers massive paydays. Currently, there are more than 27,000 active asbestos cases in Baltimore — with about two-thirds of the cases filed by The Law Offices of Peter Angelos.
Although asbestos lawsuits have overwhelmed Baltimore courts for years, judges implemented new procedures roughly two years ago to reduce the backlog. Now, judges individually review 500 cases a month to see which ones are ready to stand trial and which are not. The system is working. According to a recent report by the Maryland courts, more than half of the first 2,061 cases reviewed through the end of September have been voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiffs’ lawyers — not judges — because they cannot produce the evidence needed to go to trial, such as a medical diagnosis, proof of asbestos exposure or a witness.
The new system has exposed the likelihood that more than half of the 27,000 cases remaining on the docket aren’t supported by evidence, according to recent testimony at a House of Delegates hearing on the issue. There’s one group not happy with this result: plaintiffs’ lawyers who stand to lose tens of millions of dollars in fees. The Angelos firm is seeking a legislative bailout to monetize its cases before more collapse. Last November in a hearing before the Maryland House Judiciary Committee, an Angelos firm lawyer told legislators the Baltimore court should stop what it is doing and combine all of the cases in mass trials. By consolidating their lawsuits, plaintiffs’ lawyers would be more likely to get questionable claims pushed through the legal system.
Courts haven’t consolidated asbestos cases for almost two decades because mass trials and settlements don’t distinguish between cases that have merit and those that don’t. Instead, they use legitimate cases to force settlements of weak or even illegitimate cases, which takes money away from those who are genuinely sick. By rewarding lawyers for filing junk cases, consolidations also encourage the filing of more questionable lawsuits. Baltimore courts last consolidated about 10,000 cases in the 1990s. The three consolidations took 12 years to decide. By the time they ended in 2002, an additional 15,000 new asbestos claims had been filed, leaving the docket even more backlogged than it was before.
Fortunately, Baltimore is making huge strides to reduce the number of asbestos cases in the city. Since 2017, almost 5,000 cases have been resolved. There’s also no question that, as legitimate cases are coming forward, defendants are settling them. Baltimore City Circuit Court Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson told legislators last November that the court is now on course to resolve 5,000 cases a year and eliminate the backlog as quickly as possible.
One of the reasons for the current backlog is that years ago, the Angelos firm stopped trying cases except for those with plaintiffs who have claims of mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive form of cancer often associated with asbestos exposure. The firm routinely passes up opportunities to try less profitable non-mesothelioma cases. Since 2008, the firm has passed up 2,554 “trial slots” it could have used to set its clients’ cases for trial. And it has not tried a single case for a plaintiff without cancer, the vast majority of the docket, for more than a decade.
There is no question that consolidations provide big paydays for lawyers. The Baltimore Sun has reported that, through consolidations, the Angelos firm obtained settlements of more than $1 billion in 1992 alone. Those settlements reportedly resulted in legal fees for the firm in the range of $300 million. The next year, Peter Angelos bought the Oriole’s baseball team for $173 million.
Judge Pierson, in consultation with plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers, worked very hard to implement proven procedures that the court believes will allow it to resolve asbestos cases more fairly and efficiently than in the past. Those procedures are working. But plaintiffs’ lawyers don’t want the court to be fair and efficient — they want to rewind the clock to 1992 to bank hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees.
Rather than offering a litigation bailout to the Angelos Firm, and possibly others, the Maryland legislature should allow justice to reign by supporting the courts’ plan to ensure legitimate asbestos cases quickly move forward.