Asbestos down, but out-of-state plaintiffs dominate

Steve Gonzalez Nov. 29, 2006, 9:25am

Perry Browder

John Barnerd

Nicholas Angelides

Asbestos cases are on the decline for the second straight year in Madison County. But the pace at which out-of-state plaintiffs are filing suits here remains brisk.

In the last 60 days, the SimmonsCooper law firm of East Alton has filed 17 cases on behalf of mesothelioma victims from across the country.

Three of them were filed Monday by residents of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina.

Since early October, SimmonsCooper also has filed cases on behalf of persons living in Oklahoma, New York, California, New Mexico, Minnesota and Indiana.

According to the recent suits, defendant John Crane -- a multi-international gasket maker based in Illinois and doing business in Madison County -- is the basis for anchoring the suit here.

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.

It's headquartered in Morton Grove and operates a branch office in Chicago. Manufacturing plants are located in 22 states, but none are in Illinois.

Asbestos defense attorneys have long believed that John Crane is added to the litany of named defendants in asbestos lawsuits in order to secure venue in Madison County.

In June 2005, John Fitzpatrick of Leclair Ryan in Richmond, Va. told Madison County Circuit Judge Dan Stack that conduct between a plaintiff's attorney and a John Crane attorney during an asbestos trial bordered on fraud.

Fitzpatrick made the comment after John Crane was granted a directed verdict and was dismissed from the case brought by plaintiff Jane Gudmundson of Cook County.

He said the attorneys' conduct was "an improper use of the court and...borders on fraud."

Gudmundson 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 claimed John Crane attorney Ed Burns had struck potential jurors from the jury pool for the plaintiff's benefit.

During 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."

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.

Ed Matushek of Matushek, Niles & Sinars defended U.S. Steel in the Whittington v. U.S. Steel $250 million Madison County jury verdict.

Matushek said that during 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 in a June 9, 2005 interview.

"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.

In the new cases filed on Nov. 27, the out-of-state plaintiffs claim that during the course of their employment and during home and automotive repairs they were exposed to and inhaled, ingested or otherwise absorbed asbestos fibers emanating from certain products they were working with and around.

The plaintiffs are:

  • James Young of South Carolina. He was employed from 1966 through 2006 as a laborer, roofer, shipping clerk, production manager, gas station owner and landscaper. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma on Sept. 28.

  • Milton Severio of Louisiana. He was employed from 1961 through 1999 as a laborer, equipment operator, maintenance mechanic and railroad worker. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in October.

  • Anthony Balestreri of Florida. He was employed from 1945 through 1991 as a laborer, railroad worker and a grinder. He died from mesothelioma the day he was diagnosed on Aug. 17. His estate is represented by his wife.

    "The plaintiff's exposure and inhalation, ingestion or absorption of the asbestos fibers was completely foreseeable and could or should have been anticipated by the defendants," all the complaints state.

    They allege that the defendants included asbestos in their products even when adequate substitutes were available and failed to provide any or adequate instructions concerning the safe methods of working with and around asbestos.

    The plaintiffs also claim that the defendants failed to require and advise employees of hygiene practices designed to reduce or prevent carrying asbestos fibers home.

    They are seeking at least $250,000 in damages for negligence, willful and wanton acts, conspiracy, and negligent spoliation of evidence among other allegations.

    "In addition to compensatory damages, an award of punitive damages is appropriate and necessary in order to punish the defendants for willful, wanton, intentional and reckless misconduct and to deter them and others from engaging in like misconduct in the future," the complaints state.

    Nicholas Angelides, John Barnerd and Perry Browder of SimmonsCooper represent all of the plaintiffs.

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