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Huge asbestos trial begins in Md.

Paul Safchuck claims his chronic lung disease was caused by breathing asbestos at a shipyard where he worked for 40 years. He has waited more than a decade for his day in court.

Safchuck is among 8,555 plaintiffs seeking damages against 14 companies in four Maryland counties and the city of Baltimore. The trial, which opened Tuesday in Baltimore Circuit Court, is the result of a consolidation of lawsuits.

Jury selection was expected to last one to two weeks, said Judge Marshall Levin, who ordered the huge consolidation of cases. He said the trial would take about four months.

About 400 prospective jurors appeared in court Tuesday, said Peter Angelos, a lawyer representing 90 percent of the plaintiffs or relatives of others who have died.

The jury will consider whether asbestos injured or killed the plaintiffs, if the defendants knew the dangers, and whether the companies' conduct was so reckless that the plaintiffs deserve punitive damages, Levin said.

The cases of only six of the plaintiffs will be presented. If jurors decide the companies were liable, damages for individual plaintiffs will be decided later at smaller trials.

Asbestos has been linked to cancer and other diseases that kill about 10,000 people a year and disable many more.

Owen-Illinois Inc., a Toledo, Ohio-based glass container manufacturer and one of the defendants in the case, filed a motion last week to block the trial, claiming the six plaintiffs weren't representative of all of those covered by the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Edward Northrop denied the motion Friday.

The trial has been delayed twice. First, a secretary at a defense lawyer's office mistakenly sent a fax of confidential documents last May to lawyers representing some of the plaintiffs. Then in August, Angelos requested to have most of the 139 defendants dropped from the case.

Many of Angelos' clients handled asbestos with bare hands at the Sparrows Point shipyard, Baltimore's largest employer from the 1940s to the 1970s.