Lawyers for John Crane Inc., a manufacturer routinely named as a defendant in tens of thousands of asbestos personal injury cases nationwide, have again asked a Cook County judge to reject demands by Ford Motor Company and other asbestos co-defendants to punish Crane, saying Ford has asked the court to do "something nothing short of revolutionary" in response to allegations Crane allowed plaintiffs' lawyers to use it as a “shill” to prevent other defendants from moving asbestos cases out of Cook County's courts.
In an additional memorandum filed in court Jan. 22, about a month removed from arguments in Cook County Circuit Court before Judge Daniel Lynch on the matter, lawyers from the firm of Locke Lord, representing Chicago-based John Crane Inc. (JCI), said Ford and others have yet to present any evidence of collusion between JCI and plaintiffs in a pending asbestos injury case, by which JCI would “permit JCI to be sued or regarding how JCI would defend itself.”
“JCI defends tens of thousands of asbestos cases each year, and spends a massive amount to defend asbestos litigation and to pay judgments in asbestos cases it loses,” wrote attorney Thomas J. Cunningham, of Locke Lord, on behalf of JCI. “So it would make no sense for JCI to do anything to encourage even more asbestos lawsuits against it.”
Further, JCI’s lawyers argued Ford’s demand that the judge sanction JCI, in part, by compelling it to open for discovery a trove of company communications between the company and its lawyers would violate the most basic principles of attorney-client privilege, saying Ford has adopted a “cavalier disregard” for the legal principle underlying such privilege.
Last November, Ford’s lawyers, from the firm of Sanchez, Daniels & Hoffman, of Chicago, asked the court sanction John Crane, the firm of O’Connell, Tivin, Miller & Burns, which had represented JCI in the asbestos litigation, and lawyers from the firm of Connelly & Vogelzang, of Chicago, who had served as counsel for plaintiffs who brought the asbestos lawsuit.
The sanctions request arose as the various parties moved to conclude an asbestos liability lawsuit brought by plaintiffs Bertha and Moses Winford against a number of companies, including Ford, Honeywell, Genuine Parts, Dana Companies and others. The list of named defendants in the action included many companies that routinely land on lists of defendants in asbestos exposure complaints. The list included JCI, a manufacturer of packing and gasket products.
The litigation had continued for about 20 months, until Lynch ordered the case dismissed with prejudice “pursuant to settlement.”
However, Lynch said he was retaining jurisdiction over the case to consider the motions for sanctions.
In motions for sanctions, Ford and others alleged “gamesmanship” on the part of Crane’s attorneys and those for plaintiffs, alleging the Vogelzang lawyers installed Crane as a “straw man Illinois defendant” to “act as a shill at trial.” They said this prevented them from removing the case to federal court, as they would have preferred and “unnecessarily lengthened the pretrial proceedings.”
They said OTMB used various tactics during the proceedings as part of a long-running cooperation between them and the Vogelzang lawyers to prevent the matter from being dismissed from Cook County court and ultimately allow Crane to avoid paying damages.
In a filing Nov. 19, for instance, lawyers for Genuine Parts said “the pattern appears to be to have the John Crane attorney try to elicit some John Crane product identification into the case – just enough to preclude defendants from removing to federal court, but not enough to subject them to a jury award of any significance. Then, as the trial date approaches, the plaintiffs make no settlement demands against John Crane and John Crane offers no money.”
Genuine Parts has since withdrawn from the move to sanction JCI.
However, lawyers for Ford and others still seeking the sanctions said they believed discovery of JCI’s communications would allow them to prove the pattern.
The matter came up for a hearing on Dec. 21, at which Lynch, according to court documents, openly questioned if certain exceptions might apply to JCI’s attorney-client communications, perhaps allowing Ford and others the chance to prove their collusion claims.
The hearing prompted the Jan. 22 law memo from JCI to reiterate its contentions made Dec. 21 and in previous filings in the case that Ford’s sanctions motion was “baseless,” implying the motion is simply intended to punish JCI for not representing itself in court the way Ford and other co-defendants may have liked.
“Ford and Honeywell ask this court to do something nothing short of revolutionary, i.e., sanction JCI because its outside counsel did not seek summary judgment,” JCI’s lawyers wrote. “No court has ever done that in any case cited by the parties or found by JCI. Ad no case, statute, rule or other legal doctrine has even hinted such a sanction could ever be appropriate.”
The parties appeared in court on the matter Jan. 28, but Lynch continued proceedings on Ford’s sanctions motion to March 16.
Lawyers from the Sanchez firm declined to comment.