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It was an improbable setting for a dense and baffling public hearing.
The House Judiciary Committee traveled to a waterside resort on the Eastern Shore Thursday for two days of briefings on an array of issues that could come before the panel in the upcoming General Assembly session. A two-hour hearing on the disposition of asbestos liability litigation generated some of the most heat.
With a panoramic view of the Choptank River, the lawmakers crowded into a narrow hotel room that was not designed to accommodate the cast of characters who usually attend a committee session.
“Talk about close quarter combat,” said an attorney who made the trip to Cambridge to attend the asbestos hearing.
As the natural light faded in the room, and no one could figure out how to make the lights inside any brighter, the committee heard from experts on asbestos litigation. It’s probably fair to say that no one was illuminated. What’s more, there were no microphones, and spoken words often disappeared into the air vents.
During the last General Assembly session, a controversial late-filed bill to speed up the backlog of asbestos litigation in Maryland courts moved quickly through the state Senate in the final days, but stalled in the House Judiciary Committee on Sine Die.
After that, House Judiciary Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) decided to familiarize himself with the impediments to moving asbestos liability litigation more quickly through Maryland courts. Thursday’s hearing was designed to bring his committee up to speed.
“It’s an important issue and one that I felt it was important for this committee to get a little more education on and spend a little bit more time on it,” Clippinger told his colleagues.
There is currently a backlog of about 27,000 asbestos liability cases in Baltimore City Circuit Court, filed by former workers in steel plants, shipyards and other facilities that manufactured, processed, or distributed asbestos. Many of these plaintiffs are sick from their exposure to the carcinogen. Others are anticipating falling ill, while some of the lawsuits have been filed by family members whose loved ones have died from possible exposure to asbestos.
The backlog of cases dates back more than three decades. But the Baltimore City Circuit Court has created a unique asbestos docket, designed to chip away at the backlog.
Not every case goes to trial. Many are settled out of court. Several others are dropped because they are not viable. State court officials say they are making progress working through the caseload, but they concede that it would take more than five years to hear every one individually.
“It is the fact – and I don’t think anybody would deny this – that we don’t usually have many trials on the asbestos docket,” said W. Michel Pierson, the administrative judge for the Baltimore City Circuit Court. “Either a case is resolved because summary judgment is granted in favor of the defendants because there is not enough evidence, or the case is settled. And most of these cases have a very large number of defendants, so there may be settlements as to some defendants, summary judgment as to others. All of this takes a while to play out over the life of the case. So getting these cases set for trial puts them on the road to resolution.”
Pierson, a quiet unassuming man given to wearing bow ties, seemed happy to talk about the progress the courts are making in reducing the asbestos caseload, but often demurred when asked to comment about some of the more controversial and divisive arguments between plaintiffs’ lawyers and the defense bar.
“What you will hear, as you did in the spring, I anticipate will be two very different perspectives from the different components of the bar involved in this litigation,” Pierson told the lawmakers.
Pierson also declined to say whether consolidating asbestos liability cases, a goal of plaintiffs’ attorneys, was a good idea.
“Well, that’s a big topic,” he said. “And I would say that opinions vary widely on that.”
‘These diseases were preventable’
After the judge’s presentation, lawmakers were treated to emotional discussions of asbestos litigation – first from Gary J. Ignatowski, a lead asbestos litigation attorney with the law firm of Peter G Angelos, then from defense lawyers representing asbestos manufacturers and related companies.
Ignatowski sought to make his case in very human terms.
“This is not about statistics or numbers or how quickly you can run through with status conferences and deprive people of their fundamental rights… This is about a poisonous substance the Maryland legislature…has declared to be a carcinogen and dangerous to the health of Maryland,” Ignatowski said. “It’s about men and women who were exposed to dangerous asbestos products and sometimes even women and children in household settings to this toxic, terrible substance.”
The Angelos Law Firm is one of the most active in the country when it comes to representing workers who were exposed to asbestos and have been made ill from mesothelioma, asbestosis, cancers and other diseases.
The companies that manufactured asbestos, Ignatowski said, knew of the dangers and never warned their workers.
“These diseases were preventable,” he said.
Ignatowski argued that consolidating cases would help eliminate the backlog in the court system and would strengthen the ability of plaintiffs to receive the justice they deserve – especially since so many of the asbestos defendants have gone into bankruptcy.
“We’re asking that you seriously consider consolidation,” he urged the lawmakers. “It’s the roadmap.”
Ted Roberts, who has defended the Wallace & Gale Trust, the bankrupt shell of a defunct company that manufactured asbestos, said the Angelos firm and other plaintiffs’ attorneys are pushing for consolidation to mask the fact that so many of their clients’ cases aren’t viable. What’s more, he said, the Angelos firm has not sought to appeal when judges have denied their bids to consolidate certain cases.
“There are a lot of lawyers in this room,” Robert said. “We all know when we don’t have a ruling going our way, there is an appellate court for that. They’ve done none of that, zero.”
Roberts hammered away at the Angelos firm for several minutes before catching himself.
“Sorry, I’m in litigation mode,” he said.
As the briefing neared its end, Clippinger wondered if the two sides in the long-running asbestos battle, which is being waged both in court and in the court of public opinion, are “just fighting to be fighting.”
Roberts replied that defense lawyers shouldn’t lay down their arms when they – and their clients – don’t believe the plaintiffs have a legal leg to stand on.
Whether the 2020 General Assembly session sees new or refined legislation governing the asbestos docket remains to be seen. It was clear when the meeting Friday evening was over that the committee was pretty exhausted by what they had heard from the lawyers and Pierson.
“We should give them a round of applause, I guess,” Clippinger said.