Ford at center of Madison County's first asbestos trial of year; John Crane dismissed on seventh day

Amelia Flood Mar. 12, 2010, 1:00am





The first Madison County asbestos trial of 2010 entered its seventh day as defense experts testified and Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder continued assuming what will be her new asbestos docket duties.

Plaintiffs Larry and Meta Williams are suing a number of corporations including Ford Motor Co. in a trial that began March 3. It is the first asbestos case Crowder has presided over as judge.

Crowder has lately been trading dockets with Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack, the circuit's asbestos judge, preparing to assume the role of overseeing one of the busiest asbestos dockets in the country.

The trial recessed at about 5:40 p.m. Thursday night. It will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Friday.

After the jury left, attorneys for both sides conferenced with Crowder about the next day's testimony.

Attorneys for Ford and the plaintiffs indicated that Friday's testimony would be brief and that closing arguments would immediately follow.

Williams filed suit last year, alleging that he developed mesothelioma after working with brake products and the resulting dust that contained asbestos.

Meta Williams was later added to the case as a plaintiff. The couple is suing on counts of negligence, strict liability and loss of consortium for Meta Williams.

They are represented by Jonathan Ruckdeschel of Ellicott City, Md. and by T. Barton French, Shelby Reed, and Nathaniel Mudd of French & Mudd P.C. of St. Louis.

Ford is represented by lead counsel Manuel Sanchez of Sanchez, Daniels & Hoffman LLP of Chicago, Darrell Grams of Andrews Kurth in Dallas, Texas and Eric Bergstrom of California. Bergstrom led defense arguments Thursday.

The suit seeks damages in excess of $50,000 and alleges that the defendants acted negligently, willfully, and with the knowledge that asbestos caused lung diseases without warning workers like Williams of that risk.

Jurors in the case previously heard the plaintiff's case including video deposition testimony from Larry Williams and his oncologist, Dr. Hedy Lee Kindler of Chicago.

Her statements became a point of contention with both defense experts who took the stand Thursday, each saying Kinder's opinion was "not science."

While a number of defendants have already been dismissed from the case, Crowder announced at the trial's noon break Thursday that defendant John Crane Company had also left the suit.

Defense expert Dr. Dennis Paustenbach, a toxicologist and industrial hygienist, took the stand, testifying about the history of asbestos and steps that Ford and others took to warn workers about the dangers of inhaling asbestos.

Paustenbach began what would be an often repeated defense point regarding brake dust at the time of Williams' alleged exposures from the 1960s up to 2009.

A defense contention is that Williams, a part time mechanic, did not have a heightened risk of developing the lung disease based on a number of studies that showed brake dust did not contain significant amounts of asbestos.

Paustenbach pointed to warnings Ford began issuing about asbestos exposure in the 1970s and testified that he believed the company "responded responsibly."

During his testimony, Paustenbach offered to pass around an antique container of raw asbestos sold in drug stores in the early part of the twentieth century.

"I don't think we're going to pass asbestos around," Crowder told him.

Ruckdeschel challenged Paustenbach on whether he would still say Williams' exposure to brake dust was not a risk factor for his development of mesothelioma if it had been thousands or more times.

Paustenbach responded that he couldn't say that for certain.

Ruckdeschel took issue with a 1971 memo created at Ford discussing the low cost of switching to brakes that did not contain asbestos at all, questioning Paustenbach on it despite objections by the Ford table.

Paustenbach also agreed, as did Dr. Patrick Hessel who followed him in the witness line-up, that there were no measurements of how much asbestos containing dust there was at the Chicago garage where Larry Williams worked. Paustenbach also admitted he did not know what Larry Williams' actual asbestos exposure amount was.

Ruckdeschel pointed to Paustenbach's work for over 110 common asbestos defendants and his multi-million dollar billings for that work.

After a brief recess at 3:15 p.m., the trial resumed with Hessel's testimony.

Bergstrom questioned Hessel, an epidemiologist formerly at the University of Alberta, Canada, about studies related to mechanics and mesothelioma.

Hessel testified that the majority of epidemiological studies that had been conducted in the United States and in Europe found that mechanics had no increased risk of developing the disease. The studies included one where epidemiologists followed over 21,000 mechanics over 19 years. That study found mesothelioma in one case.

Hessel testified that the lack of mesothelioma deaths recorded in the studies was consistent from study to study, a "consistent pattern."

On cross examination, Hessel acknowledged that he did not do extensive work on asbestos until going to work for the same study group that once employed Paustenbach in 2002. Ruckdeschel pointed out in his line of questioning and through a power point that Ford and other car makers had funded several studies that Hessel worked on.

Ruckdeschel pushed Hessel on the definition of "mechanic," in the various studies used.

Ruckdeschel also questioned Hessel on statements he made during testimony in Wisconsin before a commission considering a power plant's possible pollution.

That line of questioning elicited a string of objections from Bergstrom.

Another spat broke out between Ruckdeschel and Bergstrom over the phrasing of some of Hessel's answers during redirect.

Crowder became involved in the Williams case in February. Stack remained in it as well, signing orders in February as well as one as recently as March 3. Stack presided over jury consideration in the case the day before as well.

Asbestos cases rarely go to trial, as most settle.

Some of Madison County's asbestos trials have included a 2006 case brought by a Burbank, Ill. woman, Anita O'Connell, who claimed to have been exposed to asbestos while washing her husband's clothing. The jury in the case found for the defense after five and half hours of deliberations.

Other defense victories in asbestos trials here included a 2005 case brought by a woman who claimed her husband's mesothelioma was caused by turbines on the U.S.S. Bausell, a Korean War destroyer.

Plaintiffs have also come away with verdicts in Madison County.

Plaintiff Willard King and his wife, a Fenton, Mo. man was awarded $500,000 in 2005. King claimed he was exposed to asbestos while working on farm machinery from 1950 through 1987. His suit went through two days of deliberations before the verdict was entered.

Earlier plaintiff verdicts between 2000 and 2003 have ranged higher, topping $16 million and ending as high as $250 million.

Of the other defendants sued in the Williams case, 18 were dismissed from the suit. The most recent defendant to drop out, John Crane, Inc. was announced Thursday during the trial by Crowder.

Other defendants named in the Williams suit that remain are:

Bondex International Inc., represented by Kent Plotner. Plotner also represents Dana Corporation and RPM International Inc.

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., represented by Thomas Woodrow.

Borg-Warner Corporation, represented by Mary Ann Hatch.

Continental Teves, represented by Cameron Turner.

Cooper Industries, Inc., represented by Thomas Orris. Orris also represents Pneumo Abex Corporation.

Honeywell International, Inc., represented by Nicole Behnen.

Maremont Corporation, represented by Russell Scott.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, represented by Charles Joley.

Sprinkmann Sons Corporation, represented by Tom Kernell. Kernell also represents Young Group Ltd. and Young Insulation Group of St. Louis, Inc.

Western Auto Supply Company, represented by John Kurowski.

Stack announced his retirement last year and plans to leave the bench in December.

Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis assigned Crowder to take over the asbestos docket on Feb. 18.

The case is Madison case number 09-L-537.

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