Big Asbestos Trial Under Way in San Francisco

Cynthia Foster, The Recorder

San Francisco — January 18, 2012 — Lawyers for about 30 different defendants crowded into a makeshift San Francisco courtroom this week as trial got under way, after some delays, in a major asbestos case. Plaintiff’s lawyer Gilbert Purcell, of Novato’s Brayton Purcell, said the case shares similarities and defendants with Casey v. Kaiser, a case he tried in San Francisco last year that yielded a $41 million verdict, including a rare punitive damages award of $20 million.

The plaintiff, Thomas Metcalf, says he was exposed to asbestos during his time as a Local 38 plumber.

In most asbestos cases, all but a few defendants settle before trial.

Eliot Jubelirer, an asbestos defense partner at Schiff Hardin who isn’t involved with the case or aware of the specific facts, said cases involving construction workers often have higher numbers of defendants because the plaintiffs worked on multiple job sites. “Chances are that he came into contact with a lot of different materials,” said Jubelirer.

The panel of 100-plus potential jurors, after a delay that pushed the start of voir dire back more than an hour, expressed some cynicism about the size of the defense herd.

One prospective juror, who said she runs an independent publishing house that produces books on politics and current events, told Judge Curtis Karnow that she couldn’t be trusted to be unbiased because she thought the number of defense counsel compared to the two plaintiff’s lawyers, Purcell and associate Jennifer Alesio, was striking.

Several other potential jurors volunteered that they don’t trust corporations and couldn’t be fair to them, with Karrow repeatedly asking them if they could be rational during trial.

Court officials made use of a retractable wall between two courtrooms to house the crowd of defense lawyers and potential jurors. Jury selection is expected to last several days and potential jurors were told the trial will take three months.

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