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Asbestos Trial Gets Under Way in West Virginia

A closely watched asbestos trial opened in a West Virginia courtroom this week, but the number of defendants keeps dropping, say attorneys for the 8,000 plaintiffs.

Originally, there were 259 corporate defendants in the trial, but most, although not the biggest, have settled their suits. "The larger corporations, like ExxonMobil, have decided to fight this lawsuit rather than settle," said Paul Hulsey, a South Carolina attorney representing some of the plaintiffs.

Honeywell International announced Monday it reached out-of-court settlements with the plaintiffs. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed. Honeywell has other asbestos cases pending against it in other states, stemming from the asbestos used in brake linings at its Bendix Corp. vehicle brakes unit and from asbestos in high-temperature bricks and cement products produced by North American Refractories Co., a former Honeywell unit.

Originally, judges Booker Stevens and Arthur Recht of the Kanawha County Circuit Court planned to divide the trial into two courtrooms, one for product liability claims and the other for workers claiming their health was impacted by on-premises exposures. The judges decided to combine the cases into one courtroom when they learned that only Dow Chemical Co.'s unit, Union Carbide, was the only premises defendant remaining.

The defendants requested the U.S. Supreme Court stay the trial, claiming the plaintiffs' cases were so dissimilar that consolidating them infringes on the constitutional right to due process. The Supreme Court refused, paving the way for the trial.

"ExxonMobil has not settled its West Virginia cases and is preserving all its rights to litigate and to appeal," said Walter Dellinger, the lawyer who also handled ExxonMobil's request for a stay from the Supreme Court. "Although I do not know the number of companies that have settled, as we have predicted, a large number of companies have chosen not to go through a fundamentally unfair mass trial proceeding."

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