The legal logjam that has held up resolution of nearly 100,000 asbestos-related personal-injury cases, scattered in state and federal courts across the country, may finally have been broken.
That was the consensus yesterday from attorneys and legal experts following an extraordinary agreement reached by a group of 10 federal judges that would consolidate the asbestos cases in courtrooms in Brooklyn, Cleveland and Beaumont, Tex.
Under the current system of trying cases, the shipyard workers, industrial employees and others who contracted often-fatal lung diseases from working with asbestos frequently died before their cases came to trial or were settled. And in some instances, the companies they were suing were so inundated with lawsuits that they ran out of money to pay claims.
Although those involved in the process said yesterday they are uncertain how the three-court plan will work -- or even whether it will withstand the almost-certain appeals -- they seemed to greet the decision with a mixture of skepticism and hope.
"It's an extraordinary response to an extraordinary problem," said Mary Masula, legal counsel for the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute, whose members include 2,700 workers with asbestos claims.
"It's amazing," said Pete Nicholl, an attorney with the Baltimore firm of Ashcraft & Gerel, who represents about 550 asbestos plaintiffs from the Baltimore shipyards and the Bethlehem Steel Plant at Sparrows Point. "It's a development that could have tremendous consequences.
"Obviously, the whole arrangement has thrown everything into turmoil," said Nicholl, whose cases are among the 8,000 consolidated Baltimore cases set to go to trial in Maryland state court in February.
Some of Nicholl's clients have been waiting for a trial date for as long as five years, and Nicholl said he was unsure whether the judges' plan would now require them to wait even longer to get their day in court.
On its face, the order issued Friday by an ad hoc committee of judges hearing the largest number of asbestos cases seems simple enough.
Judge Thomas D. Lambros of the Northern District of Ohio will work toward resolving all state and federal cases that can be settled without trial.
Judge Robert M. Parker of the Eastern District of Texas will oversee a national class-action suit, and try all state and federal asbestos cases that cannot be settled.
Judge Jack D. Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York will continue to supervise the cases that involve Denver-based Manville Corp., once the nation's largest maker of asbestos, which, under the terms of its bankruptcy plan, has set up a trust fund to pay injured parties.
A plan to restructure the fund is being worked out following the announcement last month that initial payments to victims and fees to their attorneys had all but exhausted the fund.
Under the judges' plan, Weinstein would supervise not only the cases involving the Manville trust, but also those involving a half-dozen other firms that are likely to say they cannot pay plaintiffs.
One of those firms is Eagle-Picher Industries Inc., with 65,000 personal-injury claims filed against it and more than $100 million in legal fees.
Weinstein yesterday appointed a special master to determine whether the Cincinnati manufacturer of auto parts and other companies have insufficient funds to satisfy asbestos claims against them.
The goal of the committee of judges is to shorten the amount of time asbestos victims must wait to be paid, free the already overloaded courts from hearing individual cases and put an end to what the judges have said are the outrageous legal and professional fees involved in the cases.
At the beginning of the year, there were nearly 30,000 asbestos-related claims pending in federal courts and 60,000 in state courts, according to the judges.
But while most of those involved with asbestos litigation agree that something needs to be done, they're not sure that the judges' action will solve the legal morass of asbestos cases.
Legal experts question whether the informal group of judges, who have disagreed in the past on how to solve the problem, have the authority to take such legal action -- particularly in combining federal court cases with those filed in state courts.
Lambros said yesterday that the federal judges had been in touch with state judges concerning the situation.
"There's a consensus among state judges and a desire to work together," said Lambros. "I don't see where there's any competition."
Andrew Berry, a Newark, N.J., attorney representing several defendants, disagreed.
"This litigation is too diffuse to expect that all parties and all state courts will consent to a mandatory class action," he told the Associated Press yesterday.
The order also gives a legal advantage to those who say they are victims of asbestosis, by declaring that a "federal common law" exists establishing that asbestos-containing materials are "inherently dangerous."
In the past, plaintiffs have had to bring medical experts into court in each case to prove that asbestos causes lung diseases.
Now they will be relieved of that burden -- a decision that some defendants will undoubtedly contest.
Another issue the judges said they are trying to address is the huge amount of money being spent on legal fees in the asbestos cases. Most plaintiffs' attorneys take one-third of whatever award clients receive as their fees.
Weinstein said yesterday that he hoped the plan would eliminate the unconscionable costs -- as much as 65 percent of the total awards to asbestos victims -- of professional fees.
"As it is set up now, an excessive amount of money is being eaten up on attorneys' fees," said Masula, the attorney for the sheet metal workers.
"We have got to pay these people who are entitled to be paid and we have to reduce the costs," Weinstein said yesterday in his Brooklyn courtroom, crowded with attorneys.