Jury selection under way for asbestos trial

Steve Gonzalez Feb. 16, 2005, 3:02pm

Troyce Wolf

Prospective jurors in a would-be-rare Madison County asbestos trial showed some savvy during a recent, extensive "voir dire," jury selection interview.

"Is there a legal reason why the case is being held here?" asked Juror 14.

The implication was clear.

As settlement talks broke down, prospects looked up for a trial involving out-of-state plaintiffs Willard and Elizabeth King of Fenton, Mo. who seek compensation for Willard's deadly asbestos-related mesothelioma. The couple filed suit June 2, 2004, alleging the disease was caused by his exposure to asbestos fibers.

Willard King, age 77, was diagnosed with mesothelioma on May 5, 2004, claiming contamination through the rebuilding, repairing, servicing and maintenance of farm equipment and automobiles from 1950 through 1987. The Kings blame Bondex, Georgia Pacific, John Crane, and RPM Inc. and Lynn Tractor and Equipment Company--familiar defendants in Madison County.

Circuit Judge Daniel J. Stack, who is getting ready for this--his first asbestos trial since taking over the massive docket last September--called attorneys forward for a sidebar to discuss Juror 14's pointed query.

"The forum of this case is not an issue for you to determine," he told the jury pool after the conference. "It's as simple as that."

Stack also interrupted a juror who inquired about how much money attorneys would earn in the case.

"Attorney's fees is not an issue in the case," he said.

A panel of 60 potential jurors--a diverse pool of students, tradesmen, teachers and retirees ranging in age from 19 to 87--were questioned at length.

After Stack satisfied his list of questions, Troyce Wolf of Waters Kraus of Dallas, who along with Barry Julian represent the Kings, took their turn.

When asked about awarding damages for emotional distress, Juror 52, a young woman, told Wolf, “It would be hard for me to come up with a fixed amount if I lost my husband. My husband is worth more than any amount of money.”

In response to "how would you feel" about awarding a large sum of money for compensatory damages, a 71-year-old panelist said, "$20 million dollars is a lot of money for someone that age. (Willard King is 77). I think that it is too much. You have to be fair and logical when awarding money."

Wolf told jurors he would be seeking between $10 and $20 million in compensatory damages.

When asked if the potential jurors had biased views because King was from Missouri and not Madison County, many jurors spoke.

Juror 32 noted that his county is notorius for having cases that do not belong. Juror 27 agreed. Juror 12 noted that President George Bush addressed Madison County venue irregularities when he visited Collinsville earlier in the year.

Wolf also asked jurors how they felt about holding a defendant liable for something that happened almost 30 years ago and a majority of the panel seemed to have no problem with that.

Other questions sought insight on the panel's view of punitive damagers and warning labels.

Jeff Hebrank, attorney for Bondex and Georgia Pacific took his turn asking the potential jurors questions on Thursday morning after Judge Stack called in nine jurors to speak in private.

When Hebrank finished, attorney's then picked the jury which has 12 jurors and two alternates.

Opening statements will begin at 9 a.m. on Feb. 22, which will be Madison County's first asbestos trial in nearly two years.

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