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Health Care Justice

Orioles Visit the State House, But Asbestos Bill Foes Have Heavy Hitters of Their Own

Current and former members of the Baltimore Orioles, including Hall of Fame slugger Eddie Murray, visit the House chamber in Annapolis on Friday. Photo by Josh Kurtz

On the same day the Angelos family organized a trip by the Baltimore Orioles to the State House, a heavy hitter from the Maryland judiciary came to the General Assembly Friday to oppose a measure pitched by the ball club’s owner.

“I came here directly from arguments this morning at the Court of Appeals … to add my voice,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera told the House Judiciary Committee, which is considering a bill that would shift tens of thousands of asbestos cases from a Baltimore City court to a quasi-judicial executive branch office for mediation. “…And to underscore for you how deeply we oppose this attempt to intrude upon the Judiciary.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), was introduced with little more than two weeks to spare in the legislative session and moved quickly through the Senate.

“It is with great dismay that we must, so late in this session, voice opposition to a bill that ignores the duty, competence and reality of the fair and effective administration of justice by Maryland’s courts,” Barbera said.

The bill, which would establish an Office of Asbestos Case Mediation and Resolution within the executive branch of state government, is supported by the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos. The firm represents plaintiffs in 21,865 of the 32,881 cases pending in the Asbestos Unit of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. About 6,500 cases are on an inactive docket, meaning potential victims without significant health damages have filed cases to toll the statute of limitations.

The Orioles on Friday brought several current and former players, including Hall of Famer Eddie Murray; the team’s general manager, Mike Elias; and the team mascot, to the State House to visit the House and Senate chambers and pose for pictures with lawmakers. Whether it was a ploy to build support for the asbestos legislation is an open question.

But the judiciary fought back. Barbera told the committee the bill would have the negative consequence of delaying cases, at a time when the court has started moving cases in significant numbers.

Since the fall of 2017, the court has been holding regular status conferences to address the backlog. Judge W. Michael Pierson, the Circuit Court administrative judge said the court now anticipates moving about 5,000 cases a year through the new scheduling process.

But a panel of attorneys from the Angelos firm said the status conferences cause an undue burden for plaintiffs early in litigation, requiring an office like theirs to organize and provide tens of thousands of pages of documents each month.

Louis F. Angelos said the current process is a “manifestly unjust procedure,” requiring up-front documentation from plaintiffs without requiring the same of defendants and without requiring early opportunities for settlement.

But members of the defense bar and insurers said the massive numbers of court claims are filed using a standard form that include little more than the names of plaintiffs and defendants, along with stock language from master claim forms. The status conferences set by the court require documentation of illnesses allege and other basic information to determine whether claims are viable, they said.

Venable LLC partner Ted Roberts, testifying for the Wallace & Gale Asbestos Settlement Trust, said 88 percent of the claims against his client have been dismissed during the process. “Why would a defendant want mediation forced on him … when cases are being dismissed in litigation?” he asked.

Overall, Pierson said that in 600 status conferences, 55 percent of cases have been resolved, while the remainder are scheduled for trial or continue in negotiations between the parties.

Roberts said cases are being dismissed for a number of reasons, including plaintiffs who don’t want to proceed, insufficient evidence or because of statute of limitations problems.

Waldstreicher told the committee that many of the court cases have been languishing on dockets since the 1980s and 1990s and said mandatory mediation could result in quicker resolution.

“They sit at home, many facing certain death, uncompensated, unheard and their cases unadjudicated,” he said. “…They deserve to be heard and they deserve respect.”

Defense attorneys challenged some of Waldstreicher’s claims, noting that many of the cases on the docket include multiple defendants, some of whom settle their portions of the case. Barbera said the judiciary has been asked by the budget committees to prepare a comprehensive report about the asbestos docket by Oct. 1, which she would be happy to share with the Judiciary Committee as well.

The bill faces a difficult but not impossible time challenge to be passed before the Legislature adjourns Sine Die on Monday.

Asked whether the committee would be voting soon, House Judiciary Chair Luke V. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) said, “We are going to think about it and go from there.”

The committee meets at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, 2 ½ hours before a scheduled noon floor session.

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Orioles Visit the State House, But Asbestos Bill Foes Have Heavy Hitters of Their Own