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Senate panel will hear ways to resolve asbestos-case backlog

Among those scheduled to testify Tuesday in Annapolis before a Senate committee on the backlog of asbestos cases in Baltimore is Peter G. Angelos, whose firm has a majority of the pending cases. (File photo)

Among those scheduled to testify Tuesday in Annapolis before a Senate committee on the backlog of asbestos cases in Baltimore is Peter G. Angelos, whose firm has a majority of the pending cases. (File photo)

Attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants in more than 13,000 asbestos cases in Baltimore will bring before a Senate panel Tuesday their years-long battle over whether and how to consolidate the litigation so the cases can be heard in court.

The hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee follows the Baltimore City Circuit Court’s rejection of the plaintiffs’ consolidation proposal, saying the offered solution would neither guarantee settlements nor avoid massive expenditures of court resource in deciding which cases have merit and should go to trial.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, who chairs the committee, said Monday he hopes the plaintiffs, defendants and Judiciary representatives propose solutions to the vexing problem, whether they involve a new law, greater resources for the judiciary or something more creative.

“You have all these thousands of people who can’t get into court,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “That’s obviously a problem.”

He added that “both sides have a vested interest in having the cases proceed as expeditiously as possible.”

In a statement Monday, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform questioned the motives of the plaintiffs’ counsel in advance of the hearing.

“A group of personal injury lawyers in Maryland is trying to get the legislature to pressure the courts into adopting bad procedures for asbestos cases,” the statement read. “These are ideas that have already been rejected by the Baltimore courts and discredited around the country.”

Attorneys for asbestos plaintiffs declined to comment Monday, saying they would reserve their statements for the hearing. Among those listed as scheduled to testify Tuesday are Peter G. Angelos and lawyers from his law firm, which has the majority of the pending asbestos cases.

Other plaintiffs’ firms scheduled to testify are the Law Offices of Peter T. Nicholl; Brown, Gould & Kiely LLP; Ruckdeschel Law Firm LLC; Ashcraft & Gerel LLP; and Goodman, Meagher & Enoch LLP.

Defense firms scheduled to testify include Venable LLP; Bodie, Dolina, Hobbs, Friddell & Grenzer P.C.; and Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP.

W. Michel Pierson, administrative judge of Baltimore City Circuit Court, is scheduled to represent the Judiciary. Pierson declined to comment prior to the hearing.

The difficulty of resolving the backlog of asbestos cases came to the fore in 2014 when Baltimore City Circuit Judge John M. Glynn rejected – after nearly two years of testimony and consideration — a plaintiffs’ motion that the court consolidate up to 25 cases at a time for discovery and joint trials.

“This court is well aware of the need to provide justice for the large number of parties whose cases still languish on this docket,” Glynn wrote then in a 43-page opinion. “But the current proposal is entirely too vague and unsupported to inspire confidence. We cannot decide this matter on faith but rather on facts, and the record contains a dearth of facts, relying instead on baseless assurances that this proposed consolidation will drive mass settlements and not require massive resources.”

Baltimore has long been a hotspot for asbestos litigation. The Mergenthaler Linotype Co. and Porter Hayden once manufactured asbestos-containing products in Charm City, and blue-collar workers were exposed to asbestos while working in the area’s shipyards, steel mills, power plants, automotive industry and construction sites.

The city created an inactive docket in 1992 for people who claimed they were exposed to asbestos but weren’t sick at the time they filed their lawsuits. There were currently 6,000 to 7,000 cases on that docket at the time Glynn wrote in his opinion.

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