Jury gives Ford victory in Madison County asbestos trial

Amelia Flood Mar. 12, 2010, 12:39pm


Jurors in a rare Madison County asbestos trial handed a victory to the defendant, Ford Motor Company, after an hour and a half of deliberations on Friday.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs had asked for more than $14 million in damages.

Ford was sued along with a number of other brake manufacturers for allegedly selling products that caused a Chicago man's mesothelioma.

Ford was the only defendant that did not settle its case with plaintiffs Larry and Meta Williams.

Meta Williams had made a claim for loss of consortium.

Others defendants were dismissed from the suit before and during trial.

Lead defense counsel Manuel Sanchez of Sanchez Daniels & Hoffman of Chicago praised both the jury and Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder for the verdict.

"It's a new day in Madison County for corporate America," Sanchez said. "Not only did we get a great jury, we got a terrific, fair and impartial judge."

Plaintiff's attorney Jonathan Ruckdeschel of the Ruckdeschel Law Firm of Maryland expressed his disappointment with the verdict.

"I'm disappointed for the Williamses but everyone should have their day in court," Ruckdeschel said.

The Williams case is the first asbestos trial of 2010. It is also the first helmed by Crowder.

Crowder was named to replace Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack as the new asbestos judge. Although she is not set to officially take over Stack's asbestos duties until his December retirement, Crowder has already heard asbestos motion calls and began entering orders in February in the Williams case.

Sanchez called Crowder "an impressive jurist."

Larry Williams, 57, had alleged that asbestos in brake dust caused him to develop mesothelioma.

Ford denied that it acted negligently and that its products had caused the disease.

The trial opened March 3.

Throughout the eight day trial, jurors heard testimony from Williams, his wife, and family members as well as a number of experts ranging from Larry William's oncologist to Dr. Patrick Hessel, an epidemiologist who testified for Ford.

Jurors rendered their verdict after several hours of closing arguments Friday afternoon.

In closings, Ruckdeschel asked jurors to remember the case's importance.

"It's a case about the life and death of a human being," Ruckdeschel said.

He pointed to testimony from Larry Williams' oncologist, Dr. Hedy Lee Kindler, that doctors understand that mechanics and brake workers develop mesothelioma.

Brakes parts throughout the 20th century contained asbestos fibers.

The plaintiff contended that those fibers were also present in dust released when brakes were taken apart.

"This is not controversial outside of the courtroom," Ruckdeschel said. "This stuff is dangerous."

Ruckdeschel stressed that Ford began warning its own employees about the dangers of asbestos from the late 1960s, but that it did not warn the general public.

He attacked fees that Ford paid its experts for testimony in the Williams case and other cases that topped more than $30 million, claiming the company "bought science."

He pointed to a memo from the early 1970s in which Ford discussed internally changing out its brake parts that contained asbestos for parts that did not. According to the memo, which was shown to jurors during the course of the trial, it would have cost the company about $1.25 a part.

Ruckdeschel argued that Ford did not want to spend the money and as a result, Larry Williams was exposed to dangerous materials during his years working on brakes in his cousin's Chicago garage.

"The consequences of this are people like Larry Williams continued to breathe asbestos," Ruckdeschel told jurors. "You got a snoot full of asbestos."

Ruckdeschel dismissed defense testimony that brake dust contains one percent asbestos fibers and argued its experts were "distractions," put on by the company in an attempt to avoid responsibility.

"They are at fault," Ruckdeschel said of Ford. "You can't decide who deserves a warning and that's exactly what Ford did. You can't bet my client's life for your money. And that's what Ford did."

In asking for damages, Ruckdeschel told jurors that the parties had stipulated that Larry Williams' medical bills were $342,033 and that his lost earnings would be $371,860.

He suggested the jury award his client:

  • $2 million for the loss of his normal
  • $5 million for his shortened life expectancy
  • $5 million for his pain and suffering
  • $2 million to Meta Williams for the loss of her husband's consortium.

    In opening his closing argument, Sanchez countered that he was "shocked" by Ruckdeschel's plea for more than $14 million.

    He called it "ridiculous," contending that Larry Williams did not work on Ford brakes and therefore, the company was not liable for his mesothelioma.

    "Who's doing the distracting here?" Sanchez said, indicating the plaintiff's table. "Their side!"

    Sanchez pointed to charts made up from testimony by Williams and his cousin about how many brake jobs he had done and what brake products he used. According to the charts, Williams handled other products, not Ford's. Sanchez also hammered at differences in Larry Williams' memories of his employment and his cousin's, citing social security records. During part of the time Williams claimed to have been working in Chicago, the social security records show his employers were located in Tennessee and Arkansas.

    "I don't care who you are, you can't be in two places at one time," Sanchez told jurors. "Ford is not guilty of negligence and nothing that has been shown to you these past two weeks ... caused Mr. Williams' mesothelioma."

    He stressed the 19 studies his experts presented that showed that brake workers had no increased mesothelioma risk and dismissed Ruckdeschel's arguments about "bought science."

    Sanchez referenced his client's lone place at the defendant's table, and calling himself and his client, "the last Mohican."

    Sanchez asked jurors to decide the case on "credibility, science and common sense."

    Sanchez called the damages demand "inflammatory," and decried the plaintiff's arguments about Ford's internal warnings as a case of "no good deed goes unpunished."

    "We should not be punished for being proactive," he said.

    Ruckdeschel countered in his closing that warning some people and not others did not excuse the company. He showed a power point slide of a snarling dog and "Beware of Dog" sign.

    "You can't pick and choose whose life you protect," he told jurors.

    While Ruckdeschel had objected multiple times during Sanchez's closing, Sanchez rose when Ruckdeschel characterized his client using violent imagery.

    "Mr. Williams is dying from millions of tiny asbestos fibers stabbing him in the chest and getting in the wall and causing cancer," Ruckdeschel had told jurors. "Ford is standing in room with a bloody knife saying it wasn't my bloody knife. My bloody knife can't cause cancer."

    Crowder sustained the objection.

    As the 2009 suit went on, the other defendants in the suit dropped out, leaving Ford as the sole party at the defendants' table. The last defendant to drop out of the case, John Crane Inc., left the suit Thursday. Crowder announced the departure during testimony Thursday and referenced it again in jury instructions.

    The jury began deliberations began at about 4:15 p.m. The verdict was entered shortly before 5:45 p.m.

    The Williamses were also represented by T. Barton French of St. Louis and Nathaniel Mudd of Edwardsville.

    Ford was also represented by Darrell Grams of Addison, Tx., Eric Bergstrom of Redwood City, Calif., Ryan McQueeney of Chicago and others.

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

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