A funny thing happened on the way to a $250 million Madison County jury verdict.
When U.S. Steel sent Chicago attorney Edward Matushek to defend the company in an asbestos trial there in 2003, Matushek noticed something strange. In jury selection, attorneys for two other defendants conferred with attorneys for the plaintiff.
“I had never seen that occur in voir dire before in my entire career,” said Matushek, of Matushek, Niles & Sinars, in a June 9 interview.
As it turned out, the Madison County jury ruled against U.S. Steel in the highest jury verdict ever awarded in the venue, and in favor of an Indiana plaintiff in Whittington v. U.S. Steel. The other defendants, Georgia Pacific and John Crane Inc., came through clear. But it was not free for Georgia Pacific, which settled with Whittington for an undisclosed amount.
Last week the Record reported an explosive exchange among attorneys in an asbestos trial over John Crane's dismissal from the suit. Defense attorney for General Electric, John 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.
"(This is) an improper use of the court and it borders on fraud,” said Fitzpatrick of Leclair Ryan in Richmond, Va.
He also told Stack that in jury selection, John Crane Inc., had struck prospective jurors favorable to the defense.
Matushek's experience two years earlier parallels Fitzpatrick's.
“In my opinion,” Matushek said, “the peremptory challenges used by those co-defendants (Whittington v. U.S. Steel) helped the plaintiff by striking jurors who appeared favorable to the defense.
“The court‘s allocation of six challenges per side became, in effect, 10-to-two in favor of the plaintiff.”
Ed Burns, of O'Connell & Associates in Elgin, has been the lead defense attorney for John Crane during trials and motion hearings.
Over the years, 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.
When asked to respond to Fitzpatrick's claim that John Crane makes deals with plaintiffs, Burns chose not to respond. But his partner Dan O’Connell of O’Connell & Associates denied an improper relationship with asbestos plaintiffs.
"That is a bunch of BS," O’Connell said in an earlier interview. "We do not have a sweetheart deal with the plaintiff's bar."
Whittington v. U.S. Steel
In the case against U.S. Steel, Roby Whittington charged that her late husband died because U.S. Steel, his employer, exposed him to asbestos in Gary, Ind. She also sued many product manufacturers, including Georgia Pacific and John Crane, Inc.
Randall Bono and Perry Browder of The Simmons Firm in East Alton, and Michael Brickman of Richardson, Patrick, Westbrook and Brickman, L.L.C. of Charleston, S.C. represented Whittington.
Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron denied U.S. Steel’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction and rejected Matushek’s argument that Whittington’s exclusive remedy was through the Indiana Industrial Board.
Whittington dismissed some manufacturers before the trial.
On the trial’s fourth day she dismissed Georgia Pacific, leaving only U.S. Steel and John Crane Inc., on the defense.
“Unlike the Gudmunson case, Crane put on a defense," Matushek said. "Yet oddly, even as a product defendant, John Crane’s main argument to the jury was that it was a good employer, not that it acted reasonably in its sale of asbestos-containing gaskets.”
Whittington’s expert witness, David Egilman, directed his testimony only against U.S. Steel, according to Whittington.
“John Crane was used simply as a foil by the plaintiff’s attorneys in the Whittington trial," said Matushek.
At the end of the trial, the jury assigned 100 percent of liability to U.S. Steel. The jury awarded $50 million in actual damages and $200 million in punitive damages.
Three days later, U.S. Steel and Whittington settled the case. Byron vacated the jury’s judgment.
John Crane, Inc.
John Crane Inc., makes mechanical seals, packaging products, transmission couplings, and lubrication systems. Its products bear the labels of John Crane, Sealol, Safematic, Flexibox, Metastream, Powerstream and Lemco.
John Crane Inc., is a Delaware corporation. It is a subsidiary of Smiths Group PLC, of Great Britain. According to its website, John Crane Inc., employs more than 6,000 persons in 47 countries.
Its headquarters are in Morton Grove, Ill., near Chicago. According to the website, the company operates a branch office in Morton Grove.
The website shows manufacturing plants in 22 states, but none in state.
The company did not respond to a request for information about the nature of its business in Illinois.