MAHONING COUNTY Judge goes over asbestos-case rules
One lawyer likened the new rules to chopping off one's head 'to cure a cold.'
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Judge Timothy Maloney had a special class Thursday afternoon, and it wasn't for your usual students.
The Mahoning County Probate Court judge met for more than an hour with lawyers who have asbestos-related probate cases pending in his court. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss and clarify new rules and procedures he's implemented.
The judge said there are more than 250 cases pending before him which involve estates of people who died as a result of exposure to asbestos. Most of those cases have companion civil lawsuits pending in common pleas court.
Why so many cases? The number of asbestos cases is so high because of its use in steel mills, which were once a major source of jobs in the Mahoning Valley.
Judge Maloney said he's seen a glut of cases in which estate settlements have been improperly handled, and too many instances of attorneys' filing inaccurate or inadequate financial disclosures.
Two law firms that specialize in filing wrongful-death civil suits in asbestos cases have been barred from practicing in Judge Maloney's court because of chronic deficiencies with information they submit to the court. Neither firm is local.
The problems are largely because Ohio's probate law as it relates to asbestos cases is confusing, the judge said.
"This is about a process that has gone terribly wrong, though in many cases with the best of intentions," he said.
Judge's concern: He was upset that some lawyers and estate fiduciaries have not accounted for money they have received from asbestos companies and have not sought court approval before disbursing the money.
Some of the lawyers complained that waiting for hearings causes unnecessary delays in settling estates and getting proceeds to the beneficiaries. They also felt that the new rules impose too many regulations on local lawyers who handle estate cases.
"It's the equivalent of chopping off your head to cure a cold," said Atty. Louis Katz. "The rule is onerous, burdensome and convoluted."
Katz said the ax should fall on the law firms who have not followed the rules in the past, not broadly on all lawyers who work with the court.
Dislikes demand: Atty. Theodore Klupinski was unhappy with Judge Maloney's demand that lawyers keep money from asbestos cases in a separate account from other estate funds, such as insurance benefits, but the judge wouldn't budge.
"I do not want that money commingled," Judge Maloney said.
Klupinski said that will require lawyers to open and pay for more bank accounts, which is a duplication of services and costs.