Witness helps reap huge awards for asbestos plaintiffs in McLean County

Steve Korris Jul. 8, 2010, 2:41am





BLOOMINGTON – With witness Barry Castleman on their side, the living win wrongful death suits against the dead in McLean County.

On the stand, Castleman -- a chemical engineer, environmentalist and researcher specializing in health issues -- speaks of asbestos peddlers indiscriminately slaughtering innocent folks 60 to 90 years ago.

In February, jurors in McLean County Circuit Court awarded $10 million in punitive damages against Honeywell because it bought a company that bought a company that made asbestos brake linings long ago.

In an asbestos trial currently under way, Castleman testified for two men with nothing in common but their lung disease and their lawyers, James Wylder and Lisa Corwin.

Testifying as a historian for mesothelioma sufferers Larry Dunham and Norman Shoopman, Castleman made clear his bias.

On June 23, when Owens-Illinois lawyer Matt Fischer asked if he read a deposition, he said, "I don't always credit the statements of corporate managers as the most reliable."

Fischer referred to another document and Castleman said, "It was provided to me but I don't know that I read it."

Fischer said, "I provided it to you."

Castleman said, "I don't read everything lawyers send me."

He hadn't read the personnel manual, safety manual or medical manual that Owens-Illinois kept at the time in question.

Though he blasted dead men for conspiring to suppress information, he justified his own letter advising a scientist to resist subpoenas for medical records.

He told Pneumo Abex lawyer Ray Modesitt it would have hurt the scientist's research to hand records over to companies defending claims.

As the day ended and jurors filed out, Fischer asked Circuit Judge Michael Prall to strike Castleman's testimony.

Fischer said Castleman believes all corporate executives are incredible.

"He is not a reliable summarizer of the data because he picks and chooses," Fischer said.

Prall said, "He's sort of like one of the historians of the asbestos story over the years.

"I was a history major myself, and historians call each other all sorts of nasty things.

"It's perfectly good fodder for cross examination, which was done."

Castleman, who is from the Washington, D.C. area, and others testifying for Wylder and Corwin, appear comfortable in the rural courtroom.

On June 21, as Castleman arrived to take the stand, the previous witness fondly clapped the shoulder of a bailiff in a farewell gesture.

After a break, as the room slowly filled, Castleman took his seat and a court reporter patted his shoulder as she passed behind him.

Later, as Honeywell lawyer Steve Hoeft cross examined Castleman in monotonous fashion, Prall summoned lawyers to the bench.

Wylder stepped forward and Corwin stayed in her chair.

She swiveled around to two bailiffs sitting behind her and mouthed, "So boring."

The bailiffs laughed, and the three shared comic relief until the proceedings resumed.

Jurors being interviewed for selection denied that they had strong feelings about corporations.

Most in the jury pool had relatives who worked for State Farm, the giant insurer with headquarters in Bloomington.

Still, similar juries render verdicts every few months awarding millions on claims that some insurer will have to cover.

Almost every jury prospect in the current case denied having ever heard or read anything about asbestos litigation in McLean County.

In the last 20 years, lawyers have filed at least 203 asbestos suits in McLean County.

In a county with about 160,000 souls, that's one for every 800 people.

In 20 years, one out of every 24 civil suits has concerned asbestos.

Since 2007, one suit out of 12 has concerned asbestos.

Plaintiff Shoopman taught shop in the local Unit 5 school district and allegedly inhaled asbestos there.

Plaintiff Dunham fought fires in Springfield and allegedly inhaled asbestos from fire truck brakes and while fighting fires.

They didn't sue their employers, instead blaming the companies Castleman identifies as the sources of all asbestos ills.

Dunham sued 24 days after learning he suffered from mesothelioma.

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