When John P. Finnegan got into a business dispute two years ago with James L. Newburn, you might say he really got an earful.

Newburn, 52, a Columbia, Md., developer, claims that Finnegan, a construction company executive, bit off the top of his left ear during a fight in Newburn's office over a land settlement. Newburn is suing Finnegan and his company for $800,000 in damages for assault and battery.

"This is not the way businessmen settle differences in our society," Theresa Osterman, Newburn's attorney, said in her opening statement to the jury that is expected to rule Wednesday. Neither Osterman nor David A. Carney, Finnegan's attorney, would comment on the case.

Finnegan, 49, president of Allied Construction Co. here, acknowledges biting the ear, but alleges the incident would not have taken place if another man in Newburn's office had not assaulted him first, according to court documents.

Finnegan has filed a counterclaim against Newburn for $1.2 million in damages for assault and battery. Newburn caused Finnegan "severe painful and personal injuries, as well as intense mental pain and anguish," court papers in that case claim.

The tussle between Finnegan and Newburn took place on July 2, 1984,when Finnegan went to Newburn's company, the Newburn Development Corp. in Columbia. According to documents filed by Newburn's attorney, Finnegan arrived unannounced and uninvited and "struck and battered Newburn with his fists, then "maimed him by biting off a section of Newburn's left ear."

Newburn's attorney said that her client has spent "large sums of money for medical treatment for injuries." He has undergone surgery on his ear three times, and skin had to be removed from his neck to help reconstruct his ear, she said, adding that Newburn's ear is "still not back the way it was."

Finnegan's attorney said in court papers that his client came to Newburn's office, on an invitation from Newburn, to complain about a "payoff figure on a piece of property."

During a "heated discussion," the papers allege, Finnegan was struck from behind by an employe of Newburn's, no longer working for the company. Newburn joined the employe in striking Finnegan, according to the court papers.