Cook County Record

Monday, April 6, 2020

Appeals panel: Judge OK to leave other, settled defendants off jury form in $6M asbestos verdict

State Court

By Scott Holland | Jan 2, 2020

Bilandic building
Illinois First District Appellate Court

CHICAGO — A state appeals panel has ruled a Cook County judge was correct to deny a new trial to a company that alleged a judge had improperly allowed a jury to award millions of dollars in an asbestos exposure personal injury lawsuit.

After a series of settlements, John Crane Inc. was the only remaining defendant in a Cook County lawsuit Sharon Daniels filed as administrator for the estate of her father Patrick O’Reilly, a Chicago union pipefitter from 1957 to 1998 who died of a cancer known as pleural mesothelioma in April 2017. A jury awarded more than $6 million in damages to Daniels. After the verdict, Judge Clare McWilliams directed a $1.1375 million setoff and later denied Crane’s motion for a new trial.

John Crane Inc. is a company that regularly finds its name among long lists of defendants in such asbestos exposure cases, particularly those filed in Illinois. As recently as 2015, the company said in court documents it has been named defendant in more than 75,000 asbestos-related lawsuits filed nationwide.

Based in Chicago, John Crane makes packing materials and gaskets. Historically, many of those components included asbestos, a fire-retardant substance now linked to cancer, including mesothelioma.

In this case, Crane appealed the judge's denial of its request for a new trial. The company, said McWilliams was wrong to let one of Daniels’ medical experts, Dr. Jerrold Abraham, testify that any time O’Reilly was exposed to asbestos contributed to his disease; the judge gave inaccurate jury instructions; the judge failed to include on the verdict form the names of four other defendants that had settled; and the judge didn’t properly analyze settlement agreements for defendants Trane U.S. and Westinghouse Electric Corp. before entering findings of good faith. The plaintiffs said the plaintiff, Daniels, didn’t disclose settlement amounts or liability allocations for the settling defendants.

Illinois First District Appellate Justice Jesse Reyes wrote the panel’s opinion, issued Dec. 19; Justices Robert Gordon and Bertina Lampkin concurred.

According to the panel, Crane’s objection to Abraham’s testimony is that he used a theory called “cumulative” causation, in essence saying there is no innocuous asbestos exposure. The panel disagreed with that framing.

“Abraham consistently testified that the more an individual is historically exposed to asbestos the more likely it is this person would develop an asbestos-related disease,” Reyes wrote, adding the “testimony stressed the importance of understanding the dose of asbestos fibers to which the individual was exposed in determining causation.”

Further, the panel noted another of Daniels’ experts, a certified industrial hygienist, gave opinion in the range of asbestos fibers O’Reilly would’ve encountered while removing and installing Crane gaskets and packing and whether those levels represented “a significant increase in exposure.”

With regard to jury instructions, the panel said the Illinois Supreme Court has established questions of legal causation concerning asbestos exposure case can go to a jury when a plaintiff provides evidence about the “frequency, regularity and proximity” of a person’s exposure. The panel noted Crane was allowed to introduce evidence about O’Reilly’s experience with other parties’ asbestos products. The justices said, if the judge had abided by Crane’s jury instruction requests, jurors would likely have been confused into thinking they needed to agree on a specific quantity of asbestos exposure, or misstated the law, as well as Daniels’ theory about the cause of her father’s disease.

The panel also said Judge McWilliams was right to reject Crane’s requested instructions about the industry’s asbestos knowledge at the time of O’Reilly’s exposure. The justices said the record included testimony concerning Crane’s specific awareness of potential danger, and that was sufficient.

Daniels said during a jury instructions conference Crane requested only that General Electric appear on the verdict form, meaning the company forfeited any future arguments regarding other defendants who settled before trial. The panel agreed, and also said McWilliams properly excluded GE from the form because settled defendants aren’t required to be so listed.

The panel rejected Crane’s argument that McWilliams didn’t have sufficient facts to decide the other defendants settled in good faith because the record lacks a suggestion McWilliams didn’t review the agreements, as required. Such settlements aren’t intended to benefit a third party, as Crane was in that instance, only Daniels and the settling entities, the appellate justices said.

According to Cook County court records, the plaintiffs were represented by attorneys Jennifer Gelman, Ethan Flint and others with the Flint Law Firm, of Edwardsville, and Klint L. Bruno, of the Bruno Law Firm, of Chicago.

John Crane Inc. was defended by attorneys with the firm of Baker & McKenzie, of Chicago. 

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Organizations in this Story

Flint Law Firm LLCIllinois First District Appellate CourtJohn Crane, Inc.Circuit Court of Cook CountyBaker McKenzie LLP