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Rehnquist Denies Stay for Massive Asbestos Trial

Manufacturing: Exxon Mobil, two others are awaiting the Supreme Court's decision on whether to hear appeal.

September 17, 2002|JAMES VICINI | REUTERS

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected two requests by companies seeking to delay the start of a massive West Virginia asbestos trial while the high court considers their appeal in the case.

In one request, Exxon Mobil Corp. and industrial conglomerate Honeywell International Inc. asked the court to stay the Sept. 23 trial in Charleston, W.Va., pending a decision on whether it would hear the appeal.

A second similar request was filed with the high court by Owens-Illinois Inc.

In the appeal, the companies are challenging as unfair the single mass trial in which about 8,000 people who claim they were exposed to asbestos have sued about 250 defendants, including various groups of employers, building owners and manufacturers.

Although the two applications for a stay were denied by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist without comment, the companies could resubmit the requests with another Supreme Court member.

One of the main attorneys for the companies, Walter Dellinger, was not immediately available for comment on Rehnquist's action.

As an alternative to a stay of the trial, the companies urged the high court to speed up consideration of the appeal so a decision would be made before Sept. 23.

The high court is on recess, but is expected to consider the appeal right before the start of its new term Oct. 7.

At issue in the appeal was a decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia that endorsed the consolidation of thousands of product-liability claims into a single proceeding.

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of lawsuits filed by people seeking huge damages for asbestos exposure.

Asbestos was widely used for fireproofing and insulation until the 1970s, when its use was curtailed after scientists concluded that inhaled asbestos fibers could be linked to lung cancer and other diseases.

But asbestos-related sicknesses can take years to materialize. With lawsuits spiking in the last three years, about 50 U.S. corporations are already in bankruptcy because of asbestos liabilities.

Many of the companies being sued now did not manufacture asbestos, but sold products containing it--such as brake linings in cars.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is moving ahead with plans to reexamine asbestos liability issues. The Senate Judiciary Committee has tentatively scheduled a hearing on the subject for Sept. 25, said a spokeswoman for committee chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

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