McLean County asbestos verdict argued at appellate court
SPRINGFIELD – Punishing the living for deeds of the dead works better in McLean County circuit court than at the Fourth District appellate court.
At oral argument on April 28, Justice John Turner poked holes in a conspiracy theory that produced a $2.5 million verdict for asbestos lawyer James Wylder of Bloomington.
Jurors who believed the theory pinned liability for Juanita Rodarmel's mesothelioma on Honeywell International and Pneumo Abex, a remnant of American Brake and Block.
Although jurors blamed Honeywell for manipulating research 80 years ago and suppressing research 60 years ago, Turner couldn't see any connection.
He asked if Honeywell was part of the group that employed authors of the first study.
Wylder said no.
Turner asked if brake maker Bendix, which Honeywell later bought, took part in suppression of the second study.
Wylder said there was no showing that Bendix did.
He implied their involvement but added, "They did not sign off."
Turner said, "That is what I gleaned from your pleadings. I just wanted to clarify that."
Justices John McCullough and Thomas Appleton also heard the argument.
Wylder has won a series of verdicts in asbestos conspiracy trials, including a recent jury award of $90 million against Honeywell and Pneumo Abex.
At Rodarmel's trial, before Circuit Judge Scott Drazeswki, jurors awarded $2 million in
compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.
Rodarmel alleged exposure to asbestos fibers her husband brought home on his clothing.
At oral argument, Honeywell lawyer Coleen Baime of Chicago said Drazewski excluded evidence that other companies engaged in similar conduct.
"A false world was created," she said.
"We and only we failed to warn of the hazards. It was the way everybody did it at the time."
She said it was error to allow Wylder to present circumstantial evidence while excluding
Honeywell from rebutting it.
She said the award of punitive damages exacerbated the error.
She said that in order to award punitive damages, the intent to harm must be malicious.
"It has to be almost akin to criminal conduct," she said.
Wylder said doctors and researchers knew the hazards but there was no evidence that those working with products knew.
He said defendants argued that companies like General Motors and Monsanto knew.
"There is no evidence how much General Motors knew," he said.
"When did Monsanto know?" he said. "What did Monsanto know?"
He said allowing evidence about other companies would create a mini trial for each.
The Justices took it under advisement.
Turner, Appleton and Justice James Knecht heard arguments over a similar McLean County verdict in March.