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Late push in Maryland General Assembly would move thousands of asbestos lawsuits into mediation

Late push in Maryland General Assembly would move thousands of asbestos lawsuits into mediation
As the General Assembly nears the end of its legislative session, lawmakers are considering creating a state office to mediate thousands of lawsuits from workers sickened by asbestos exposure. The State House in Annapolis is shown in this file photo. (Katherine Frey / The Washington Post)

In the waning days of the Maryland General Assembly session, lawmakers are considering creating a state office to mediate thousands of lawsuits from workers sickened by exposure to asbestos.

The bill is being pushed by the Law Offices of Peter Angelos, a firm that represents two-thirds of the more than 30,000 asbestos cases pending in Baltimore Circuit Court.

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The legislation was introduced late in the session and moved rapidly through a Senate committee and to the Senate, which approved it Wednesday on a 44-0 vote.

The bill moves to the House of Delegates for consideration with just a few days left before the end of the session at midnight Monday.

The backlog of asbestos lawsuits has been a problem in Maryland courts for decades, with some workers dying before their cases are resolved.

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the bill’s sponsor, said the workers “have not been treated with the seriousness they deserve.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuits include past workers from places such as the former Sparrows Point steel mill, Baltimore’s shipyards and other construction and manufacturing businesses who were exposed to asbestos, which can cause lung and other diseases.

Under Waldstreicher’s proposal, plaintiffs who have cancer would be able to have the new office mediate their cases first. The two sides would split the cost of mediation, and if either side isn’t happy with the result, it could request a trial in court.

Under the current process, plaintiffs must bring documents related to their case to a status conference, where a judge determines if the case is viable before it is scheduled for a trial.

Gary Ignatowski, an attorney with the Angelos firm, said last week during a hearing on the bill that the status conference is one-sided, requiring the plaintiff’s lawyers to reveal much of their case while the defendants don’t have to provide any information.

Ignatowski said the amount of work and research required is “simply intolerable, unbearable.”

Ignatowski and two other attorneys from the Angelos firm were the only proponents of the bill who spoke at the hearing.

Judge W. Michel Pierson, administrative judge for the Baltimore Circuit Court, told senators that the status conference system is working. It identifies lawsuits that are not viable, then schedules the viable cases for trial — and each time, those cases have then been settled by the parties.

“We sort out which cases are ready to forward,” Pierson said.

When trial dates are set, that gives both sides an incentive to settle the case to avoid the expense and time of a trial, Pierson said.

The Maryland Judiciary opposes the bill, with the judiciary’s legislative committee writing that it “interferes with the inherent ability of the judiciary to control and schedule its dockets.” The judiciary also objected to the idea of the executive branch setting procedures for mediation, such as rules on the use of experts and how to conduct discovery.

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The bill sailed through the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on a 10-1 vote two days after its hearing.

When it reached the Senate, it ran into some opposition before ultimately passing.

Sen. Ed Reilly, an Anne Arundel County Republican, cautioned the bill makes a significant policy change by moving asbestos cases from the judicial system to a mediation process that’s part of the executive branch of government.

“I’m very concerned about it in the long run,” Reilly said.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he hoped lawmakers would agree the bill could reduce the “thorny problem” of having so many cases left unresolved.

“You’re talking about a decade before some of these folks will have their day in court, long after they are dead,” he said.

Angelos has twice invited Zirkin to throw out a ceremonial first pitch on opening day for the Baltimore Orioles. Angelos is the majority owner of the baseball team.

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