A trial consolidating 9,032 claims against 10 asbestos makers is getting under way here in an attempt to rein in a legal behemoth.

Circuit Judge Marshall A. Levin ordered the thousands of claims consolidated in the trial set to begin this week. The claimants are in the city and four surrounding counties. Most are former steel and shipyard workers.It's the largest consolidation of asbestos cases in U.S. history and could set a precedent that would speed the resolution of similar cases nationwide.

Jury selection was to begin Monday. The trial is expected to take months.

Levin wants to use the trial to settle the issue of whether the manufacturers sold products containing asbestos, a mineral used for insulation and fireproofing, knowing it caused lung disease and cancer when inhaled.

If the jury finds for the plaintiffs, damages will be decided later in smaller trials.

Asbestos has been linked to diseases that kill about 10,000 people a year and disable thousands more.

Nationwide, 90,000 asbestos personal-injury cases are pending. New claims outpace settlements two to one, said Zach Cowan, director of technical information at the National Asbestos Council in Savannah, Ga.

Many plaintiffs die before their cases get to court.

"It's quite evident that there is some need for reform," Cowan said.

Steven Hairston, staff associate for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., said the Baltimore trial may be the largest of any kind in U.S. history.

Other judges have attempted to consolidate asbestos cases with uneven success.

Asbestos cases involving hundreds of plaintiffs in Texas and West Virginia were consolidated. But federal judges who tried consolidation in Ohio and New York, each with about 10,000 asbestos cases, were rebuffed by objections and appeals.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist commissioned a study of asbestos cases clogging the judicial system nationwide. The study yielded few suggestions but found "a disaster of major proportions" was in the making and encouraged Congress and the courts to find new ways of dealing with the problem.

Plaintiffs and their lawyers often resist consolidation because damage awards tend to be smaller. Class-action suits - in which all members of a defined class share an award even if they didn't help bring the lawsuit - are unpopular for the same reason.