Multi-international John Crane fights to stay in Madison County

Steve Gonzalez Jun. 2, 2005, 3:00pm

David Greenstone

John Crane, a giant international gasket maker with operations in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Russia, might as well have an office in downtown Edwardsville.

The self described "world's largest designer, manufacturer, and supplier of engineered sealing systems, solutions, and associated products" has been named as a defendant in virtually every asbestos lawsuit filed in Madison County Circuit Court.

And while it's typical for corporations civilly accused in this venue to ask for their cases to be transferred out of the so-called plaintiff-friendly court when there is no obvious link to Madison County, it isn't so for John Crane.

At least in the past year, attorneys for John Crane have curiously argued against forum non conveniens motions.

Ed Burns, of O'Connell & Associates in Elgin, has been the lead defense attorney for John Crane during trials and motion hearings.

He has vigorously opposed transfer of venue cases out of Madison County, stating his client does significant business in the county. Leaving, he has said, would "hurt" his clients' business because it would appear as if John Crane had something to hide.

As Madison County's second recent asbestos trial neared its end, a frustrated co-defendant attorney for General Electric exploded when John Crane was granted a directed verdict and was dismissed from the case.

"(This is) an improper use of the court and it borders on fraud," said John Fitzpatrick of Leclair Ryan in Richmond, Va.

The case involves plaintiff Jane Gudmundson of Cook County, who filed suit in April 2003 alleging her late husband, Harvey Gudmundson, was exposed to asbestos while serving on the U.S.S. Bausell--a navy destroyer-- during the Korean War in the early 1950s.

In court, Fitzpatrick stated that plaintiff attorney David Greenstone made a "sweetheart deal" with John Crane by not presenting any evidence or listing any witnesses against John Crane.

Fitzpatrick also claims Burns had struck potential jurors from the jury pool to the plaintiff's benefit.

Burns did not respond to Fitzpatrick's charges. But partner Dan O'Connell of O'Connell & Associates denied an improper relationship with asbestos plaintiffs.

"That is a bunch of BS," O'Connell said. "We do not have a sweetheart deal with the plaintiff's bar."

'Fitzpatrick has said this about other companies in the past, anything to get an edge for his client."

During the intense bickering in the trial's sixth day, Greenstone said that accusing someone of fraud in open court is a "slanderous allegation."

He also said that not presenting evidence against Crane is "between me and my client."

An asbestos defense attorney who asked not to be identified, said former docket administrator Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron could have stopped venue shopping a long time ago if he would have transferred out cases with no link to Madison County. But, he said, Byron would almost always deny transfers because he believed he was a judge for all citizens of the United States, not just Madison County.

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