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The Maryland Government's Case: State Is the First To Seek Damages--$500 Million--From Companies

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On Sept. 20, Maryland filed the first case by a state government against asbestos manufacturers for the costs of removing asbestos from all of its public buildings except public elementary and secondary schools.

The state is seeking at least $500 million in damages from 47 asbestos companies in a lawsuit charging that those companies manufactured and sold cancer-causing asbestos products that are now present in approximately 45 million square feet of property in 3,000 public buildings in the state. Those buildings include public colleges and universities and schools within state institutions.

Although the lawsuit filed in the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court is the first state-initiated action of its kind, Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs contends that such suits will become more common.

"The state is probably the largest single owner of buildings affected by asbestos," said Mr. Sachs. He added that "the state has a responsibility to its citizens and employees to remove asbestos to protect people from the dangers of it, and that's going to be enormously expensive. The question arises, who should pay for it? Should taxpayers pay for it, or should the industry, which we think knowingly caused the problem?"

Mr. Sachs added that "the coordinated effect or the consolidated effect of one lawsuit will provide a more effective way to present evidence than to have it scattered all over creation."

Excludes Public Schools

Maryland's public elementary and secondary schools were not included in the lawsuit for two reasons, according to David M. Sheehan, assistant attorney general for the state. First, the Pennsylvania case currently prohibits any new lawsuits against at least three of the major asbestos manufacturers in the country. Second, the state attorney general has offered to coordinate asbestos litigation for all schools within Maryland's county system (with the exception of Baltimore City, which has secured its own counsel), and is still waiting for formal responses from all of the counties.

Such participation would be purely voluntary on the part of the school districts, since they have their own attorneys, said Mr. Sheehan. But he added that "many of the counties have written asking that we take a lead role because of the enormous costs involved."

Mr. Sachs also said that one of the reasons the state decided to move quickly with the lawsuit was beof statutes of limitation.

In Maryland, the state is exempted from such statutes. But the attor-ney general's office was concerned, after observing the situation in Pennsylvania, that the statutes would cause others to file asbestos litigation that could lead to a class action. That, said Mr. Sachs, would force the state to "surrender control of its litigation. That was our reason for moving as promptly as we could, to make sure we could control our own litigation."

Mr. Sachs noted that "a lot of people feel that the statutes of limitation would run from the time of dissemination of the federal attorney general's report." He added, "I think we're just the first on the block, and there's now going to be a wave of such cases. Virginia's already been quoted as saying that they're going to file. The city of Baltimore is about to file. So, I think you're going to be seeing a lot of these."--lo

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