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Private Settlement Reached in Mesothelioma Case

WHEELING — A private settlement was reached in a mass litigation asbestos case Tuesday in Ohio County Circuit Court, meaning a trial set to take place at The Highlands Event Center next week won’t be necessary.

Both Ohio County Clerk of Courts Brenda Miller and court employees for Judge Ronald Wilson said details of the settlement weren’t available to the public on Tuesday.

Negotiations between attorneys with Wilson present took place at the event center starting Monday morning, and the agreement was announced at about 11:15 a.m. Tuesday.

If a settlement hadn’t been reached, jury selection for the trial would have started today at the event center and continued throughout the week. A trial would have begun there Monday morning.

Wilson had encouraged a settlement, raising concerns about a trial with everyone in masks with the threat of COVID-19 present, according to a letter sent to the attorneys.

The mass litigation involves 38 mesothelioma and lung cancer cases that have more than 100 defendants each, and some of the cases have more than 140 defendants, according to court records.

Miller explained the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has granted permission for circuit courts to move proceedings off-site when necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Those are usually very long trials, and they can go for weeks.,” she said. “Judge Wilson usually has about three of those cases a year. It’s great it was settled before we had to bring in a jury…

“With these types of settlements, we try to settle as much as possible with the defendants to limit the number of people who are going to trial.”

The event center has much more area than do courtrooms at the City-County Building, and would permit those involved in court trials more room to socially distance, according to Miller.

An additional number of potential jurors always are needed for mass litigation cases, she said. Prospective jurors for the asbestos trial received questionnaires at home, and after responding returned these to the judge’s office.

About 33 jurors were to be called in for jury duty, Miller said. From that number, a six-member jury would have been selected.

The jurors would have had to have their temperatures taken at the start of the day, and to wear masks while participating.

To make certain social distancing is observed, prospective jurors were to report at staggered times for the selection, according to Miller.

Ohio County Circuit Court has conducted a grand jury proceeding at the City-County Building since the coronavirus pandemic began, and court officials followed all the guidelines for socially distancing and wearing masks, Miller said.

Proceedings took place in the second floor courtroom, while extra jurors sat waiting in an area on the sixth floor.

Judge Jason Cuomo also presided over a jury trial this month with all safety regulations observed.

“We are proceeding with court,” Miller said. “A lot of hearings are held on Skype, or on video-conferencing if they are incarcerated. This limits the number of people in the courtroom at the same time.”

Chairs are marked to tell jurors where to sit and keep them separated.

Miller isn’t certain how the court will handle visitors and media to the courtroom when there are public hearings and trials in the future, and she said that would be up to the judges to decide.

“We are trying to keep everybody separate,” she said. “We have just enough room for the jurors.”

Ohio County judges do have some larger trials upcoming, and presently are considering whether courtrooms at the City-County Building are large enough to accommodate them, according to Miller.

She said an issue for her office during the off-site trials is accessibility to file servers at the courthouse and the court’s computer systems.

She has had to purchase an additional laptop computer that will be equipped with the necessary equipment, and she expects it will arrive this week.

“The key is we’re doing everything in our power to follow the guidelines for COVID-19, and have the availability to keep everybody separate,” Miller said.

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