Defense makes opening arguments in asbestos trial

Steve Gonzalez May 10, 2005, 5:55am

Jeffrey Hebrank

John Wendler

Mark Phillips

As opening arguments got under way in Madison County's first asbestos trial in two years, lead attorney for Georgia Pacific and Bondex Jeffrey Hebrank of the Burroughs firm in Edwardsville argued that it's not really an asbestos case he is defending.Hebrank’s opening arguments.

“This is a product liability case,” Hebrank told jurors.

“This case is not about whether asbestos is bad. It is about if our products were bad.”

“You are the judges of credibility,”

Seventy-seven-year-old Willard King of Fenton, Mo. claims he was exposed to asbestos during a home remodeling project in the early 1970s. His suit names hundreds of defendants, but only Georgia Pacific, Bondex, Lynn Tractor, RPM Inc. and John Crane are on trial.

Hebrank said that in his first interrogatory, King stated that the project was done in 1973 or 1974. However, in a supplemental interrogatory, the time frame changed to early 1970.

“Now why is this important?” Hebrank asked the jurors. “Because in 1973 our joint compound had a warning on it letting people know there was asbestos in it.”

The type of joint compound Georgia Pacific and Bondex manufactured contained chrysotile--also known as the "white" asbestos--which is soft and curly and the fibers can break into smaller units. Hebrank said it can be easily and safely expelled from the body by coughing or sneezing.

"Our experts believe that chrysotile does not cause mesothelioma," Hebrank stated. "Period."

Hebrank’s co-counsel, Mark Phillips of Charleston, S.C., said King's statements were inconsistent.

“Mr. King states that he bought the joint compound he used for his home from Central Hardware," Phillips said,

"Victor Luechtefeld from Central Hardware will testify that they did not sell Georgia-Pacific joint compound at the time Mr. King used the product.”

Attorneys for John Crane and Lynn Tractor did not make opening arguments.

“The burden is on the plaintiff to prove my client caused his mesothelioma," said attorney John Wendler on behalf of Bondex. "The plaintiff gets to go first, but I have no chance if you do not wait to hear my case.”

“I will prove my clients acted like reasonable men,” said Wendler, who is also with the Burroughs firm.

The jury, which was selected in February, consists of eight women and five men, including one alternate.

After opening arguments, Circuit Judge Daniel Stack ordered jurors not to discuss the case with anyone.

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