A Superior Court judge rebuffed the District yesterday in its efforts to revive damage claims over asbestos found in about 1,800 city buildings, effectively eliminating most of the city's $400 million suit against the asbestos industry.
The District had asked Judge Peter H. Wolf to reconsider an earlier ruling that the statute of limitations barred the District from claiming damages in about 75 percent of the buildings cited in the suit. The District subsequently enacted retroactive legislation excluding the District government from the statute of limitations provision.
In his 14-page ruling, Wolf said it would be unfair and unconstitutional to apply the legislation and overturn his previous ruling. He noted that the city had "changed the rules in its favor after the battle had been joined," which is something that "no other litigant can do."
Lawyers for asbestos manufacturers and distributors praised the judge's ruling, while District lawyers said an appeal probably would be filed with the D.C. Court of Appeals.
"It is a very significant victory," said Paul A. Zevnik, one of the lawyers representing the 27 manufacturers and suppliers named in the suit.
The District filed the suit two years ago after discovering that it might have to spend $20 million to remove crumbling asbestos to meet federal health standards. Asbestos had been used routinely in buildings as an insulator and fire retardant until it was linked to cancer, and city governments all across the country have filed suit to recover damages.
About 2,400 D.C. government buildings and schools have been identified as possible sites of asbestos. But on Feb. 3, Wolf ruled that regardless of the number, the statute of limitations barred the District's claims involving buildings constructed or improved before Jan. 17, 1970, along with claims involving property where officials discovered the presence of asbestos before Jan. 17, 1980.
The city appealed that ruling, noting that D.C. Council legislation that took effect Feb. 28 made any statute of limitations inapplicable to suits brought by the District.
In issuing his order yesterday, the judge noted the "enormous" stakes involved in his ruling and said he was aware that it could reduce the District's claims to about $50 million in damages if the city prevailed in the lawsuit.
"But the law must endeavor to treat like cases alike -- big or small, government plaintiff or not, serious allegations or trivial," he wrote.
Concern about the city's handling of the legislation surfaced in the last couple of months after it was revealed that the D.C. auditor is examining the Board of Education's payment of nearly $3.5 million to private lawyers to handle the school system's part of the lawsuit.
At the same time, a number of lawyers in the D.C. corporation counsel's office, which is representing the rest of the city government, have worried privately that the city's case might be doomed because of understaffing and underfunding. Asbestos cases are extremely complicated and time-consuming.
Yesterday, the judge praised the work of attorneys on both sides, calling their legal briefs "excellent."