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San Francisco court plans to create asbestos docket

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline)-With an exploding number of asbestos-related lawsuits being filed in San Francisco, court officials here are planning the creation of a single department where the often-complex cases will be heard.

The plans have largely received a warm reception from the defense bar and from one of the city's leading asbestos litigators: Stephen Tigerman, a named partner in the San Francisco law firm of Harowitz & Tigerman LLP.

Tigerman told Legal Newsline on Tuesday that having just one judge hear asbestos cases will not only help streamline litigation and avoid inconsistent rulings, it will also help the judge determine which lawyers are "playing hardball," not wanting to reach settlements and who is trying to get cases resolved.

"We actually welcome the prospect of having the court oversee a case from beginning to end," said Tigerman, who has been litigating asbestos cases for the last 25 years. Tigerman's small boutique mesothelioma firm handles about 20 cases at a time, he said.

"We've been through a good number of presiding judges and we've been through a good number of efforts to try to streamline the program to make things run more efficiently," Tigerman said, "and we welcome (efforts) to try to improve the efficiency of the litigation."

Tigerman is on the board of directors of the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association. 

The asbestos case management department will be led by San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn with the help of Commissioner Arlene Borick. Neighboring Alameda County Superior Court has a similar system, with a much lighter asbestos-related docket than San Francisco has currently.

"It has worked very well over there," Tigerman said of the Alameda County program.

A public hearing on San Francisco Presiding Judge James McBride's proposal is scheduled for Nov. 17. 

General Order 162 would require that beginning Jan. 4, all pretrial motions in asbestos cases and other matters would be heard by the new department.

"The San Francisco Superior Court carries the largest asbestos caseload of any of California's 58 Superior Courts," McBride said in a statement. "The aim of this new proposed general order is to achieve more effective case management."

McBride said the new asbestos department would, among other things, eliminate the pattern of repeated continued trial dates. 

"We want to make sure that cases set for trial are ready for trial, and that cases that should settle before trial do so before we call in a large panel of jurors," he said. "Jurors are the most precious resource of our system and must be treated as such."

Last year, 45 percent of jurors summoned for civil trials were used to hear asbestos litigation, a court report indicates.

San Francisco County Superior Court currently has more than 1,660 active pending asbestos cases, which account for about two-thirds of the state's overall asbestos caseload. 

Many cases allege exposure to asbestos-containing fibers can cause such serious illnesses as mesothelioma and asbestosis.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at