Jonathan Bilyk Jul. 19, 2016, 7:12pm

Ford Motors and other corporate co-defendants in an asbestos action pending in Cook County court have ended the push to punish gasket maker John Crane Inc. and its lawyers for allegedly allowing plaintiffs’ lawyers to use it as a “shill” to allow such cases to remain in Cook County.

Now, lawyers for the Chicago-based JCI have asked a Cook County judge to also back off a potential unprompted request for untold amounts of documents related to thousands of asbestos cases involving JCI in Cook and downstate Madison County, saying the judge lacks the authority to order the discovery without a motion by a party involved in the litigation.

On July 12, attorneys Thomas J. Cunningham and P. Russell Perdew, of the firm of Locke Lord LLP, of Chicago, filed a motion on behalf of JCI in Cook County Circuit Court, objecting to an order the objection said was issued June 23, requiring JCI to “produce a vast amount of information regarding other mesothelioma cases against JCI for the last 10 years.”

“No party has ever sought the information the Court now seeks,” JCI’s lawyers wrote. “Thus, the Court has crafted its own discovery requests, and directed those massively burdensome requests solely at JCI, just as an aggressive opposing attorney would do.”

Cook County Circuit Judge Daniel Lynch has presided in the case.

Last fall, lawyers for Ford asked the court to sanction John Crane, the firm of O’Connell, Tivin, Miller & Burns, which had represented JCI, and lawyers from the firm of Connelly & Vogelzang, of Chicago.

The sanctions request arose as JCI, Ford and other defendants moved to conclude an asbestos liability lawsuit brought by plaintiffs Bertha and Moses Winford against a number of companies. Other defendants included Honeywell, Genuine Parts, Dana Companies and others who routinely land on lists of defendants in cases in which plaintiffs alleged they contracted mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos.

The litigation continued for about 20 months, until Lynch ordered the case dismissed under settlement.

However, Lynch said he was retaining jurisdiction over the case to consider the motions for sanctions brought by Ford and other co-defendants.

In those motions, Ford and others had 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 prevent the case from being removed to federal court and needlessly lengthening the 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 case from being dismissed, with an eye toward ultimately allowing Crane to avoid paying damages.

JCI denied the allegations, and said the sanctions request was “unprecedented.”

Lawyers for the co-defendants, however, have dropped those sanctions requests, with Ford being the last to back off in May following an evidentiary hearing and further briefings on the matter.

However, in late June, the court, acting “sua sponte” – meaning, without a request from any of the parties in the case – proposed an order requiring JCI to turn over potentially massive amounts of documents relating to all of the asbestos exposure cases brought against it in Cook and Madison counties over the past decade. JCI said the order potentially would involve thousands of cases and is “much broader than what any party (in the case) has ever sought.”

In response to the proposed order, JCI said the record shows no evidence of any of the alleged collusion among JCI, its lawyers and plaintiffs’ lawyers, and “no basis for concluding JCI allows itself to be sued because it faces no risk in asbestos cases.”

Further JCI argued the court would lack any “legal basis to sanction JCI” or order the proposed discovery request, as Illinois court rules do not allow such an order without a request from any of the other parties.

And, JCI said, the proposed discovery order would not involve a “criminal contempt proceeding,” which, Crane said, should leave the company and its lawyers free of the threat of such a bench-initiated discovery order.

JCI said a discovery order initiated by the judge would leave the leave them arguing against the very judge who ordered the discovery and would consider any of their requests for relief.

“In short, the Court has created an untenable role for itself,” JCI wrote in its memorandum expressing its objections. “The Court cannot remain impartial while targeting JCI for further proceedings that no party wants and while demanding massive amounts of information from JCI that no party has ever sought.”

Should the court proceed with the proposed discovery order, Crane said it would seek to appeal the order to the Illinois Supreme Court for review of what it said would be “an unlawful and burdensome order.”  

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