Asbestos defendant USG sees end in sight

Steve Korris Feb. 1, 2006, 4:43pm

Sheetrock maker USG of Chicago has faced almost 6,000 asbestos suits in Madison County, but company executives believe they will never face another.

USG announced Monday that it had reached an agreement to settle all current and future asbestos claims.

Executives predicted that the agreement would pull USG out of bankruptcy by the third quarter of this year.

USG, the former United States Gypsum, declared bankruptcy in 2001. In Madison County, that stopped a run of litigation dating back to 1986.

In a search of court dockets, The Record found 5,859 asbestos suits with United States Gypsum among the defendants.

In most cases, plaintiffs added the company to suits they had filed years before. This tactic failed once.

In March 1998, plaintiffs added United States Gypsum and two other defendants in a group of cases set for trial a year away.

The new defendants moved for summary judgment due to lack of product identification. Six days before trial, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed all three.

Two months later, plaintiffs added the same three to another batch of cases set for trial. The new defendants did not seek summary judgment, and the trial never happened.

After USG declared bankruptcy, Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron dismissed many of the cases against it but without prejudice. Plaintiffs can refile the claims.

Whether USG's settlement would resurrect these old suits depends on the terms of the agreement. USG did not release the terms but said it would release them in February.

The settlement has a rosy-- and a gloomy side.

USG will create a trust fund with $900 million cash. If Congress adopts a bill to create a national asbestos trust fund, USG will pay no more into its own trust.

If Congress rejects the bill or greatly changes it, USG will borrow $3.05 billion and put it into the trust fund.

USG supports the bill.

If the bill fails, USG's dark cloud would show a silver lining. Creation of a $3.95 billion trust would trigger a tax refund of more than $1 billion, according to USG.

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