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MAHONING COUNTY Court asks help with case backlog



Published: Mon, April 15, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Officials say some 200 new asbestos cases could be filed within the next year.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- There's an asbestos problem in the Mahoning County Courthouse, but it requires a legal, not environmental, remedy.

The courts are getting clogged with civil lawsuits filed by people who say they contracted asbestosis through their jobs, and judges want help handling them.

Judge James C. Evans of common pleas court has asked that a visiting judge be assigned to hear all pending asbestos cases and any more that are filed within the next year.

There are already about 100 asbestos cases pending in common pleas court, Judge Evans said. Court officials have been told there could be twice that many, or more, filed over the next six to 12 months.

"It's a huge problem and it's going to get worse," said Judge Evans.

Workers affected: Asbestosis is caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers, usually affecting workers in the textile, cement and insulation industries. Steel workers have also complained of asbestos-related health problems.

Most of those complaints are originally filed as workers' compensation claims, said Robert Rupeka, common pleas court administrator.

If the claims are denied, the next step is an appeal to the Ohio Industrial Commission. If that is unsuccessful, the claimant then can file a civil suit in common pleas court.

Judge Evans said the overload of asbestos cases seems to hit industrial counties such as Mahoning.

Cuyahoga County has a huge asbestos docket with some 30,000 cases, Rupeka said, noting that there are two or three law firms in Ohio that specialize in filing asbestos-related lawsuits.

"It's our turn, I guess," he said.

The county's request isn't unprecedented, said Patty Fry, assistant director of the Supreme Court's division of judicial and court services. Visiting judges for asbestos cases were assigned to Lucas County in September 2001 and Summit County in September 2000.

"But I don't see this as a real trend," she said.

Difficulties: The problem, Judge Evans said, is that laws regarding asbestos complaints aren't crystal clear and require some judicial interpretation.

In Mahoning County, cases are randomly assigned among the five general division judges, who each must make some judgment calls. Judges are busy with their own dockets and usually don't know how others have ruled in similar cases.

"As a result, we have conflicting opinions on identical issues," he said. "Quite candidly, it makes us look foolish. Some uniformity would be a big help."

That's why the judges have asked for a visiting judge to be assigned. Charles J. Bannon, a retired Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judge, has agreed to accept the appointment if the Ohio Supreme Court approves.

The high court makes all visiting judge appointments and provides counties with money to pay most of their daily salary, Judge Evans said. The county is responsible for 15 percent of their pay.

Asked before: Mahoning County asked once before for a visiting judge to hear the asbestos cases, but was denied because the state budget cuts left the high court without enough money to fund it, Rupeka said.

"We have been in constant communication with the Supreme Court since then about our need to get this position filled," he said.

Asbestos cases are considered complex litigation because they are technically difficult, generate loads of paperwork, and often involve several companies and individuals, Rupeka said.

They are tough enough to handle on their own, but coupled with the court's ever-growing number of other civil cases, they create a legal logjam.

"They're just bogging down the courts," Judge Evans said.

bjackson@vindy.com




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