ANNAPOLIS – Attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants in more than 22,000 pending asbestos cases in Baltimore squared off before a Senate panel Tuesday over the best way to shrink the docket in the city’s circuit court.
Armand J. Volta Jr., who represents plaintiffs, said the cases could be consolidated based on the industry in which the alleged victims worked when they were exposed to the toxin. For example, steelworkers, shipyard employees and those in the construction trades could be grouped as plaintiffs in separate trials, Volta told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
In that way, thousands of cases could be resolved in the time it would take to clear hundreds, said Volta, of the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos PC, which specializes in asbestos cases. (Angelos himself was listed as scheduled to testify on a draft of the hearing’s agenda but did not attend Tuesday.)
But civil-defense attorney Theodore F. Roberts assailed such consolidation as the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ attempt to create “a superhighway” in which claims lacking merit could be grouped with those that do to avoid dismissal and get them to trial or to an out-of-court settlement.
Roberts added the plaintiffs’ bar is responsible for any lack of progress in shrinking the docket, as those lawyers choose to file asbestos claims solely in Baltimore City Circuit Court and have resisted bringing cases to trial even when trial slots are available.
“Other courthouses are available,” said Roberts a partner with Venable LLP in Towson. “The cases are voluntarily put in the busiest courthouse.”
The more-just method for reducing the docket, Roberts added, would be to permit W. Michel Pierson, the circuit court’s administrative judge, to continue with his fledgling process of having batches of cases reviewed in status conferences to determine which are meritorious and should proceed to trial or settlement and which should be dismissed due to lack of evidence or other reason.
Volta and Roberts presented their dueling arguments as the Senate committee considered whether a legislative solution is in order to reduce the longstanding backlog. Volta said the plaintiffs’ attorneys might put forth a proposal but Roberts said the better remedy is not a new law but financial support to boost Pierson’s administrative staff.
‘Ramp up the plod’
Appearing before the committee, Pierson said the conferences have shown early signs of stemming the docket and he would welcome additional staff to help further reduce a vexing problem that still has the court plodding along.
“I don’t have a magic solution,” Pierson said. “I don’t think there’s a magic fix to it. You’ve got to ramp up the plod.”
Nevertheless, he added that “it’s the beginning of a process. I think it’s a good beginning.”
But Volta, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said he and his colleagues will make a motion soon that the court consolidates cases based on the alleged victims’ professions.
The industry-specific proposal is “more streamlined” than an earlier consolidation proposal that would group plaintiffs based on their illness – such as mesothelioma, lung cancer or a non-malignancy, Volta said.
But Roberts said the solution lies in conferencing, not consolidating.
For example, an administrative review of the non-malignant cases could likely reveal that the plaintiffs’ medical evidence is sketchy because it is often the same doctors making the questionable diagnosis of asbestos-related illness, Roberts said.
The court should take a “hard look” at the diagnosing doctors, he told the committee.
“When you look under the hood of mass-diagnosing doctors, you usually find something,” Roberts added.
Baltimore has long been a hotspot for asbestos litigation. The Mergenthaler Linotype Co. and Porter Hayden once manufactured asbestos-containing products here, and blue-collar workers were exposed to asbestos while working in the area’s shipyards, steel mills, power plants, automotive industry and construction sites.