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US court further delays ABB asbestos hearing

ABB chairman Jürgen Dormann is still hoping for a swift settlement Keystone

A United States appeals court has again delayed a hearing on a $1.2 billion (SFr1.48 billion) asbestos settlement involving the Swiss-Swedish engineering firm, ABB.

But the Zurich-based group said that the change in the scheduled date of February 4 was of no significance for the outcome of the hearing.

ABB added that it was confident that the Pennsylvania-based Third Circuit Court of Appeals would accept its settlement at a date to be determined.

The asbestos settlement in the US centres on ABB’s bankrupt Combustion Engineering unit, which made industrial boilers insulated with asbestos material.

If accepted, the deal would settle the vast majority of claims made by more than 100,000 people suffering from the effects of asbestos.

Thirteen claimant groups have lodged appeals against the company’s plans.

The original hearing, set for the middle of December, has now been delayed for the third time.

Settlement still expected

In a statement, ABB said that the court had given higher priority to another hearing unrelated to its case, but insisted that the settlement would go through.

“There is no change in our position that we are confident that our plan will be confirmed. We expect to receive a new date soon. Our plan remains on the fast track,” the company said.

An ABB spokesman said that the delay would have no impact on the firm’s sale of most of its oil, gas and petrochemicals unit for up to $975 million.

The sale is considered a vital part of the company’s effort to cut its mountain of debt, built up after an overambitious acquisition strategy.

The firm had originally wanted to reduce its $8.3 billion pile of debt to about $6.5 billion in 2003.

Over the past two years, the group has been slimming down to focus on automation and power technologies in a bid to return to profit.

Support from claimants

Chairman and CEO Jürgen Dormann, acclaimed for helping to save ABB from the brink of bankruptcy in 2002, said this week in a newspaper interview that he expected the asbestos issue would be finalised in the first or second quarter.

He told the weekly business newspaper, “Handelszeitung”, that ABB aimed to return to profit this year after a loss in 2003.

In a related development, the head of ABB Switzerland, Hanspeter Fässler, told Zurich’s “Tages-Anzeiger” newspaper on Thursday that the sale of the Swiss building systems unit should be completed this year.

Most of the unit, which generated $2.4 billion in sales in 2002, has already been sold.

Fässler said that a management buyout of the unit was a possibility, but only if the right price could be agreed.

swissinfo with agencies

An appeal court in the United States has once again delayed a hearing on the $1.2 billion asbestos settlement plans of engineering concern ABB.
ABB says it is confident that the delay will not affect a positive outcome of the asbestos issue.
Chairman and CEO Jürgen Dormann has said that he expects ABB to make a profit this year after a loss in 2003.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR