BALTIMORE, JULY 13 -- A jury in the nation's largest-ever asbestos trial today found all six defendants liable for manufacturing products they should have known were dangerous, setting the stage for more than 8,500 former steel and shipyard workers from around Maryland to receive compensation for lung cancers and other asbestos-related diseases.

The findings could lead to millions of dollars in damages, since the verdict will be used in upcoming mini-trials that will determine the degree of exposure and specific monetary awards for individual plaintiffs. The stakes could grow higher if the Baltimore jury, in issuing what will be a four-part verdict in the days ahead, decides that punitive damages also should be awarded to the victims, who in some cases filed suit more than a decade ago.

The verdict, which came after two days of deliberations, culminates what has been an expensive and protracted trial. Dozens of lawyers packed the Baltimore Circuit courtroom each day, as did row upon row of former steel and shipyard workers, many of whom were shuttled in by bus.

"I'm confident that our clients will be encouraged by this verdict that their day of compensation is near," said Patricia Kasputys, an attorney with the law firm Peter G. Angelos, which represents most of the plaintiffs.

Two of the leading defense lawyers on the case, Ed Houff for GAF Corp. and Bill Harvard for Pittsburgh Corning Corp., declined to comment on the case.

In all, some three dozen products were reviewed by the 12-member jurors. In every case, the jury found that the asbestos companies were negligent for producing products that they knew or should have known were dangerous to those exposed to them, failed to issue proper warnings about their hazards, and are consequently liable for any damages those products caused.

Although relatively little new information was divulged about the dangers of asbestos or what its manufacturers knew about their products, the trial's sheer size, and the consolidation process used to resolve the thousands of cases, is apt to be copied throughout the country, legal experts said.

"I think the consolidation process was vindicated," said Judge Marshall Levin after the verdict, who was called out of retirement to handle asbestos litigation.

The plaintiffs in the case filed their suits individually over the past decade, but Levin decided to lump them all together for one mass trial in an attempt to unburden court dockets from around Maryland of asbestos suits that were piling up twice as fast as they were being resolved.

By consolidating the cases into one, Baltimore not only became the scene of the largest asbestos trial in U.S. history, but also captured the attention of legal experts nationwide because of its innovative approach to resolving asbestos claims.

All told, there are nearly 100,000 asbestos personal injury claims pending in federal and state courts around the country. In Maryland, the number of such cases has been accumulating at a rate of more than 1,000 a year.

All along, lawyers for the defendants argued that their clients' rights were being compromised merely so that the court system could be untangled from a web of litigation. By lumping everyone together, no one gets a fair hearing, the defendants maintained.

As a practical matter, the goal of consolidating cases is not so much to bring cases to trial, but to encourage both sides to settle or risk getting hit with a verdict they don't like. When cases are tried one by one, the process drags on for years, so that no one feels pressured to negotiate.

" "The consolidation serves as a very useful tool to encourage an out-of-court voluntary agreement," said Kenneth R. Feinberg, a court-appointed mediator in asbestos cases.

The Baltimore trial started with more than 100 defendants, but through settlements along the way, that number was winnowed down to the six who had judgments rendered against them today: AC&S Inc., GAF, Keene Corp., MCIC Inc., Pittsburgh Corning and Porter-Hayden Co. Sources said some of the defendants are holding settlement talks.

From settlements made with other defendant companies before the trial's end, plaintiffs could receive anywhere from $300,000 to $400,000 for those who have life-threatening diseases, down to around $40,000 for those with mild respiratory problems, according to sources familiar with the settlement negotiations. Terms of the settlements were not disclosed.

The jury still has to determine whether any of the six plaintiffs who actually had their specific cases heard in the trial should be awarded damages.

After that decision, the jury returns to decide whether the companies' behavior was reckless enough for them to award punitive damages to all the 8,500 plaintiffs. And if they decide yes on punitive damages, they go back once again to devise a formula that would be applied to each individual case in subsequent mini-trials.

Over the course of the four-month trial, the jury sat back while more than 100 witnesses were paraded before them -- scientists, corporate executives and laborers whose 22,619 pages of testimony filled five shelves in the courtroom by the time the trial was over.

On occasion, the monotony of it all was interrupted by a film clip or video; during final arguments, a plaintiff's attorney even pulled out and fired a loaded squirt gun to make a point.