Past federal court cases support USX Corp.'s claim that punitive damages shouldn't be levied in a $500 million pension lawsuit filed by former USX employees at Geneva Steel, company lawyers claim.

But attorneys for steelworkers argue the door is still open for punitive damages in the lawsuit and cited a recent Supreme Court decision supporting that claim.U.S. District Judge Bruce S. Jenkins was hearing a second day of pretrial arguments Friday after about 100 interested steelworkers showed up the day before.

Jenkins was expected to rule on the motions at a later date.

The Pickering vs. USX Corp. lawsuit claims that USX cheated steelworkers out of millions of dollars in lost wages and pension benefits when it closed its Utah County steelmill and then sold it to Basic Manufacturing & Technology.

The suit gets its name from steelworker Tony Pickering, but addresses the grievances of as many as 2,000 other workers.

Originally filed April 10, 1987, in 4th District Court in Provo by Springville attorney Allen K. Young, the suit called for $1.4 billion in lost benefits and punitive damages.

The suit charged that USX extracted concessions from steelworkers under a promise that the corporation would continue to operate the plant until 1989, and steelworkers made critical employment decisions based on those promises.

But the suit was remanded from state to federal court in April of 1987, and the issue of broken promises was discounted by Jenkins.

Now the lawsuit focuses on claims by Young and other steelworker lawyers that USX's actions violated sections of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and the Age Discrimination Employment Act.

Corporation lawyer Mike L. Larsen of Salt Lake City said the overwhelming bulk of legal precedent in previous cases involving the sections of the retirement act would not support Jenkins allowing punitive damages.

But steelworker lawyer Lynn C. Harris of Provo cited a Dec. 3 U.S. Supreme Court decision by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, saying it supports punitive damage claims in cases involving the act.

"The door is still open," he said.

Young told a Provo newspaper on Thursday that compensation to steelworkers for lost wages and pension benefits and punitive damages could range between $250 million and $500 million.

The suit has been active since 1987 and affidavits have been taken from former steelworkers, union leaders, USX representatives and BM&T representatives.

An affidavit was taken in June from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who helped facilitate the sale of the mill to BM&T.

A jury trial has been scheduled for March 18, with a final pretrial conference set for Jan. 28.

Prominent Wyoming tort attorney Gerry L. Spence was also in the courtroom Thursday helping Young, Harris and Chicago attorney Joe Orlasky.

Spence won acquittal for former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos earlier this year and is expected to argue the USX case before the jury.