BY STEVE KEMME
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HAMILTON -- A visiting Butler County judge was removed from the prodigious AK Steel asbestos lawsuit because of concerns that he could not dispatch the cases quickly enough, said Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer.
"Asbestos cases are unique in that they require the judge to manage many cases with many attorneys and parties," he said Friday. "It takes a special skill to manage them. I became convinced that I should not be asking Judge (George) Elliott to manage that number of cases."
Chief Justice Moyer took the cases from Judge Elliott last week, more than a year after appointing him to handle the complicated lawsuit. It involves 990 current and former AK Steel employees and 50 asbestos manufacturers whose products were used at the Middletown plant.
The lawsuit alleges that the workers named as plaintiffs have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. It asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
No cases have been tried since the lawsuit was filed in January 1996.
"The plaintiffs are suffering from diseases," Chief Justice Moyer said. "If they're to receive compensation, you want them to receive the compensation while they're still alive. So there is some reason to expedite the process."
Judge Elliott, who served as a Butler County common pleas judge for 10 years before retiring at the end of 1996, declined to comment. Chief Justice Moyer said he will appoint another retired judge to handle the cases within a week if the five Butler County common pleas judges do not want to handle the cases themselves.
He said he will continue to assign cases to Judge Elliott.
"My removal of Judge Elliott from these cases doesn't have anything to do with the quality of his judgment, but simply the management of these unique cases," Chief Justice Moyer said. "I know he's had some illness."
He said he will urge the new judge to use a mediation plan developed by Judge Elliott.
Chief Justice Moyer said that in the past 11 years, he has removed moved 10 to 15 assigned judges from cases.