A big name from the Carter era has signed on to defend Bethlehem Steel Corp. from a lawsuit by retired workers at its Maryland Sparrows Point plant. Former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti is the lead attorney fighting a claim by six retired bricklayers that the company purposely concealed evidence of their asbestos-related lung disease.

Civiletti, a partner in the Washington firm of Venable, Baetjer, Howard and Civiletti, said the steel company has been a client of his firm for some 15 years. "I don't think I'm an occupational disease lawyer," said Civiletti, but he said he's taking most of Bethlehem Steel's cases since he returned to private practice. "That's what I prefer, the large, complicated case."

Most disease claims against Bethlehem Steel have been handled by a Baltimore firm before the state Workmen's Compensation board. But this lawsuit, which could prompt claims by scores of other long-time steel plant workers, attempts to avoid the compensation system and its ban on worker lawsuits by claiming Bethlehem Steel and its company doctors conspired to keep the workers ignorant of their worsening health. Preliminary motions have been filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.