Opening statements began Tuesday in a Tennessee claimant’s asbestos case against defendants John Crane, Inc. and Crane Co.
Brothers Tom King, Jr. and Brian King brought the suit to Madison County last year on behalf of their father Tom King, Sr., months before he died from mesothelioma on May 23, 2013, at age 71.
Crane Co., a company that supplied the U.S. Navy with mechanical gaskets and valves, and John Crane, a designer and manufacturer of mechanical seals, are the remaining defendants at trial from an original list of 119 defendant companies.
According to the lawsuit, Tom King was a machinist for the U.S. Navy from 1959-1962 and again from 1965-1969, serving on the USS Forrestal, USS Tallahatchie County and the USS Hollister.
King’s job was to change gaskets, repair pumps and repair valves. Part of his job required him to scrape out dry, baked asbestos from gaskets in order to replace them with new ones. He used a wire brush and a scraper to clean the asbestos from the old gaskets. He also was exposed to asbestos packing, which was used in valves and pumps as a sealant to prevent leaking, according to testimony.
Trial is under way in Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs’ court – the nation’s busiest asbestos docket. Typically, asbestos cases settle and trials are rare. This is the second trial in Madison County in three months.
Without jurors present and prior to opening statements, plaintiff and defense counsel addressed a motion in limine requesting an order that would prohibit Crane Co. from presenting circumstantial evidence regarding King’s asbestos exposure to insulation aboard Navy ships.
Plaintiff attorney Allyson Romani of Shrader & Associates of Glen Carbon argued that Crane Co. should only be permitted to discuss an alternative type of asbestos exposure – that from insulation – if its attorneys could bring solid evidence supporting their claims. Romani argued that defense was attempting to ignore sole proximate cause.
She further argued that information Crane wanted to introduce was misleading because pipe insulation was just a small portion of King’s work. His day-to-day activities involved working with chrysotile valves, gaskets and packing – that which Crane Co. manufactured.
Crane Co. attorney Jeff Hebrank of HeplerBroom in Edwardsville, however, argued that defense does not carry a burden of proof and, therefore, can rely on circumstantial evidence.
Stobbs said he would allow insulation exposure arguments to be heard by the jury.
Plaintiff attorney Frank Wathen of Shrader & Associates delivered opening statements and prepared for Crane Co’s inclusion of insulation asbestos exposure by telling jurors that the defense will present “excuses.” He told jurors that Crane Co. will blame other companies’ asbestos-containing products.
“What Crane Co. is telling you is, ‘It’s OK to poison someone a little bit,’” Wathen said.
“To this day, Crane Co. will come into court and say their gaskets are safe.”
Wathen said that Crane Co. created a gasket material called Cranite, which contained 75 to 85 percent chrysotile and amphibole asbestos.
“To this day, Crane Co. contends that asbestos in its products is safe,” Wathen said.
The sheets did not come with warnings and continued to be sold until the mid 1980s, which Wathen considers negligent due to the obvious studies on asbestos dangers released years in advance.
“This case is about business as usual for Crane Co.,” Wathen said.
He added that chrysotile fibers, specifically, get stuck in lungs and are easily transferred from the inside of the lungs to the lining.
“The bottom line is,” Wathen said, “asbestos, and all types of asbestos, cause cancer, cause asbestosis and can kill you.”
Crane Co. attorney Jim Lowery of Lexington, Ky. responded by saying he brings only facts.
“Keep in mind that these will be facts, and facts are not excuses,” Lowery said.
He told jurors that pipe insulation must have caused King’s illness. He said his company’s products were safe and could not have caused King’s mesothelioma.
“You’re looking for a cause?” Lowery said. “That’s the cause, the insulation.”
The insulation aboard the ship was friable amosite asbestos insulation, he said, which means it could be easily crushed to a powder in someone’s hand.
All asbestos-containing products sold or manufactured by Crane Co. were encased and were considered safe, Lowery said. In fact, gaskets and packing aren’t even banned today, he said.
Lowery also said that gaskets and packing weren’t examined as a potentially dangerous product until well after other exposures were identified. He said that published studies in 1991 showed these products were not dangerous.
Lowery also argued that the Navy chose to use asbestos gaskets and packing, not Crane Co.
He said that Crane Co. had products that didn’t contain asbestos and could have offered those products if the Navy hadn’t already made it clear that by way of specifications, requiring asbestos-containing products. The Navy also dictated the warnings, or lack thereof, of the products, he said.
He said that the Navy was one of the largest consumers of asbestos products at the time due to fire protection. Regulations required the military to use asbestos as a fire retardant. Asbestos was also light weight, allowing for faster ships and the ability to store more ammunition.
Asbestos was remarkably common, and the Navy made sure to know everything there was to know about asbestos. With that, they still didn’t consider asbestos-containing gaskets and packing dangerous, Lowery said.
“We followed precise military specifications because if we didn’t, the Navy wouldn’t buy it,” Lowery said.
“The Navy controlled every aspect of Mr. King’s life and workspace on the ship … If the Navy gave you an order, boy you did it.”
After opening statements, Tom King, Jr. gave a tearful testimony about his memories of his father and what he knew of his father’s career in the Navy.
“He was the cornerstone of our family,” King said, “and it’s like somebody pulled a pin and everything collapsed.”
When Tom King, Sr. left the Navy he moved to Tennessee.
He had been living with prostate cancer for several years, but Wathen said it was manageable and had not spread at the time of King’s death.
He was eventually diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012. After stints of chemotherapy and radiation, King died in May 2013.
“Prostate cancer did not kill Tom King,” Wathen said. “Mesothelioma killed Tom King.”
Crane Co. attorney Rebecca Nickelson of HeplerBroom cross-examined the witness pointing out that after Tom King Sr. was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he refused conventional medicine and opted to try natural remedies like healthy eating.
Tom King Jr. said his father had stacks of books about prostate cancer to fully educate himself on the diagnosis.
Edward Burns of O’Connel, Tivin, Miller & Burns LLC represents John Crane, Inc. but did not deliver opening statements.
Madison County Circuit Court case number 13-L-31