Madison County's first benzene trial of the year got fully under way Wednesday as attorneys from both sides gave opening statements that included silver paint cans and red apples as props.
While attorneys for the plaintiff's side seek more than $1 million in damages for what they claim was cancer caused by benzene exposure, defendant 3M claims their products had nothing to do with the disease at all.
The suit brought by Veto Kleinaitis of Bethalto originally named more than a dozen companies that made adhesives, solvents and other products containing benzene.
The case was whittled down to a single company at trial.
3M made adhesives and solvents that Kleinaitis claims exposed him to the benzene that caused his Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
Kleinaitis's is represented by William Kohlburn of the Simmons law firm.
Kleinaitis's suit is one of a spate of 17 benzene suits filed between 2004 and 2006 by the SimmonsCooper Law Firm.
Defendants dropped out in batches and settled as the case progressed until 3M was left standing.
A fourth amended complaint was filed Aug. 17 in the case but is not yet available in the case file.
During his opening statement, Kohlburn hoisted silver paint cans and a five gallon bucket to give jurors a visual reference about the type of benzene containing products his client came into contact with during his decades as an aircraft mechanic.
"This case is going to be a lot about choices," Kohlburn said.
He told jurors his client had not always made good choices, citing Kleinaitis's smoking history, continued use of smoking at present and his problems with alcohol at one time.
Kohlburn acknowledged that cigarettes contain traces of benzene and that 3M's products weren't the sole reasons his client had been exposed to cancer-causing carcinogens.
"He's responsible for that," Kohlburn said of the cigarettes.
However, Kohlburn told jurors, 3M's choices about what types of benzene containing chemicals it uses in its products and the ways in which is failed to warn workers about the exposure were at greater fault.
"3M knew the benzene was in there," Kohlburn said. "3M knew benzene was a carcinogen. What 3M did was avoid mentioning benzene."
Kohlburn went on to tell jurors 3M's company name did not stand for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.
"To me it stands for 'Do no more than meet the minimum," the plaintiff's attorney said.
The plaintiff's attorney described his client's illness and inability to work, telling jurors that Kleinaitis drew in his own eyebrows with a marker after they fell out while he underwent chemotherapy.
Kohlburn went on to explain to jurors he would seek more than $1 million in damages including over $370,000 in past medical bills and $890,144.00 in lost future wages.
Defense attorney Amanda Cialkowski had her own prop during her opening statement, a red apple she held up.
"You have benzene in apples," Cialkowski told jurors, apple in hand. "You have benzene in bananas. Did this contribute? Should there be warning labels on apples and bananas?"
She touted a 3M company motto, stating her client believed in "Healthy people, safe products," and took steps to make that true.
Cialkowski pointed to studies that showed there was no link between benzene and the Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma type that Kleinaitis suffered from.
She told jurors her client required testing of raw supply shipments before it would accept and use them and that it chose materials such as acetone to limit the amount of benzene present in its adhesives.
Cialkowski pointed to the different sources of benzene exposure that the general population encountered daily.
She told jurors a plaintiff's expert witness who analyzed common gasoline and 3M products Kleinaitis may have used found that while common gas contained one to two ounces of benzene per gallon, 3M's products contained less than three hundredths or less benzene in the products per gallon.
"3M played by the rules," Cialkowski said.
The trial is set to resume with the opening of the plaintiff's case Thursday at 9 a.m.
Kleinaitis is also represented by Ted Gianaris and others.
3M is represented by Cialkowski, Sandra Wunderlich and others.
Cialkowski is with the Nilan Johnson Lewis law firm of Minneapolis.
Wunderlich is with Stinson Morrison Hecker LLP of St. Louis.
Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis presides.
The case is Madison case number 05-L-1050.
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