Baltimore Judge Rejects Mass Consolidation of Asbestos Lawsuits
On Wednesday, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge John M. Glynn soundly rejected a proposal by the law firm of Peter Angelos to combine approximately 13,000 asbestos-related lawsuits involving different products, exposures, and illnesses, along with scores of defendants.
The firm’s push for the mass consolidation of thousands of claims of people with different exposures and injuries, a practice that deprives businesses of the ability to fairly defend themselves and forces them into settling questionable cases, was the principal reason that Baltimore City found itself named a Judicial Hellhole in 2012-13 and a jurisdiction to watch in last year’s report.
Use of mass consolidations in Baltimore City in the 1990s, rather than relieving a backlog of asbestos cases, resulted in more asbestos claims and bankruptcies. The process placed efficiency over fairly and accurately deciding claims. It was a lucrative strategy for plaintiffs’ lawyers. According to the Baltimore Sun, in 1992 alone, Angelos obtained settlements of more than $1 billion in asbestos lawsuits and helped the tort kingpin build his fortune.
In recent years, most jurisdictions have ended or substantially curbed the use of trial consolidations in asbestos cases and the architects of early mass consolidations repudiated them.
Judge Glynn, who handles most asbestos cases filed in Maryland, called the mass consolidation proposal “ill-defined” and “entirely too vague and unsupported to inspire confidence.” He observed that the plaintiffs’ lawyer’s plan “suffers from a troubling lack of specifics” as to how each plaintiff and defendant would have their day in court. It is inappropriate, Judge Glynn found, for the plaintiffs’ lawyers to ask the court to rely on “blind faith and baseless assurances” rather than meaningful detail and factual support in evaluating their plan for resolving thousands of cases.
The Baltimore City judge also observed that the court’s “inactive docket” for asbestos cases, which allows people who allege they were exposed to asbestos but have not developed an impairment to move forward if and when they become ill, “has worked well and has benefited all parties.” The mass consolidation proposal, however, would have spent court time on these claims, many of which are decades old and lack merit. “This Court is in the dark as to the quality and nature of these claims,” Judge Glynn remarked, and is “skeptical regarding their quality.”
Given the diversity of the cases, Judge Glynn found, there would be an “extraordinarily high” risk of juror confusion.
He also observed that settlements are only fair and effective if parties can make informed decisions, but the mass consolidation plan seeks to “force settlement without anyone–the Court, the plaintiffs, the defendants–really knowing the evidence supporting them.” As with earlier mass consolidations, Judge Glynn expressed concern that, rather than relieve the “backlog” of cases, the opportunity to quickly settle thousands of cases would lead to forum shopping, more claims, and new rounds of consolidations.
Although the court firmly rejected the mass consolidation proposal, Judge Glynn expressed interest in exploring options for reducing the number of asbestos cases in its docket and resolving cases more rapidly. Resolving cases through binding arbitration and exploring state legislative reforms, he said, provide two potential avenues.
But Judge Glynn reserved his highest praise for innovations adopted by the judge who manages asbestos cases pending in federal courts, which require each plaintiff to submit a sheet with basic information on the claim along with supporting materials. These submissions allow the court to dismiss claims that lack support and prioritize cases for trial. It has cleared thousands of cases that have little or no merit from the federal asbestos docket.
“This Court is of the earnest belief that the [federal] procedures, or some modification thereof, have the potential to substantially reduce this jurisdiction’s asbestos docket, while imposing minimum burdens,” Judge Glynn concluded.