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Willy Nilly, School Officials Are Enmeshed in Legal Considerations

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The asbestos dilemma for school officials stretches from the classrooms and boiler rooms that contain the substance to the courtrooms in which one of the most complex legal battles in modern times is developing.

The battle, which has engaged growing legions of lawyers on all sides, will--at the most general level--test the question of whether a multibillion-dollar industry is financially liable for putting workers and buyers in possibly life-endangering situations.

At a more immediate level, the litigation is requiring school officials to make rapid decisions in complicated circumstances about whether they wish to lodge claims to try to recover their asbestos-related costs. And it is also making plain that such officials must consider their own potential liability for future disease among workers and students--a liability that may be linked to a failure to keep records and take careful action toward abatement, lawyers say.

Given the federal government's apparent unwillingness to make a major investment in school-asbestos abatement, school districts that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars identifying asbestos in their buildings and isolating or removing the material have one major route, legal experts say, to recover those costs--a lawsuit against the industries that mined, milled, or manufactured the asbestos products that are in their schools.

Whether schools can pursue that legal remedy in individual cases scattered across the country, or will have to do so as part of one potentially enormous case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, is now being weighed by Judge James M. Kelly. He is expected to make a decision sometime this month.

That decision could shape the course of school-asbestos litigation for years to come.

Yet no matter what Judge Kelly decides, lawyers warn, the litigation will be costly and time-consuming.

On the other hand, schools that ignore the litigation route may end up with worse problems on their hands, the lawyers suggest. School officials who fail to abate a potential asbestos hazard, to identify the manufactur-er of asbestos-containing products in their buildings, or to attempt the recovery of asbestos-cleanup costs may find themselves in court as defendants in asbestos litigation.

Lawyers working on asbestos cases also point out that time may be running out for schools to legally recover the costs of asbestos-abatement activities from asbestos companies because the statutes of limitations may expire in various states.

Meanwhile, the momentum of asbestos litigation is picking up steam across the country.

School districts face an Oct. 31 deadline for filing a claim against the Manville Corporation--one of the largest asbestos manufacturers in the world--if they hope ever to re-coup abatement costs from that company.

The state of Maryland has filed the first case by a state government against asbestos manufacturers for the costs of removing asbestos from all of its public buildings.

The New Jersey Education Association last month sued 157 school boards and 125 as-yet-unnamed asbestos maufacturers and contractors for the costs of medical checkups for school employees who may have been exposed to asbestos hazards.

And lawyers from California to Boston say that they are beginning to see the first glimpses of the workmen's compensation battles and personal-injury cases that are down the road, as maintenance workers, teachers, and former students begin to contract disabling and fatal diseases from asbestos exposure in schools.

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