Harrison settles in as head of Madison County asbestos docket

By Christina Stueve | Jan 5, 2012





Settling in as head of the nation's busiest state court asbestos docket, Madison County Associate Judge Clarence Harrison reassured lawyers packed into his small second floor courtroom on Wednesday, "Things will fit into place."

Harrison was hearing pre-trial motions, an occurrence that happens almost weekly with local and out of state lawyers pleading their cases in what is estimated to be thousands of pending asbestos lawsuits.

Harrison replaced Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder last month after it was learned she had accepted $30,000 in campaign contributions from asbestos lawyers, days after she made a favorable ruling for them.

Crowder, who said on Dec. 14 that she would return the money, has denied doing anything that would have violated the code of judicial conduct.

According to the State Board of Elections website, Crowder has not yet filed a quarterly report which would reflect the return of contributions that came from lawyers at the Simmons Firm in Alton and the Goldenberg firm and Gori & Julian of Edwardsville. Quarterly reports are due Jan. 17.

At Wednesday's asbestos hearing, plaintiff attorney Eric Jackstadt of Granite City requested an emergency motion to accelerate proceedings for his client in an asbestos case filed just last month.

His client, Donald Norton of Elijay, Ga., is dying of malignant mesothelioma, Jackstadt said. He said he hopes to get Norton's deposition taken before he dies.

His client became aware that he had the disease on Nov. 18; his lawsuit was filed Dec. 12.

Jackstadt described the emergency motion as "routine."

"All these people will die from this illness," he said. "We try to be careful about asking for expedited settings."

Jackstadt requested that his client's testimony be placed on record before he's unable to testify, or before he dies. He said he hopes to have a discovery deposition taken on Jan. 12 at Norton's home, which is 75 miles north of Atlanta. The next step would be to set a trial date.

Others who spoke at the hearing Wednesday included attorney Gary Saalman of Columbus, Ohio, who represents Goodyear Tire and Rubber. He had a motion to dismiss over judgment of a case.

Attorney Amy Garrett with the Simmons Firm said she needed medical releases and interrogatory responses for one of her cases.

Harrison, who has previously handled the asbestos docket when, for instance, Crowder was involved in presiding over a trial, commented on the infrequency of asbestos trials in Madison County.

"By the time of trial, they come up with a negotiated settlement," he said. "The attorneys handling cases are familiar with claims and reasonable values to resolve or dismiss cases. We have a lot of very experienced individuals handling cases."

The last time an asbestos trial occurred in Madison County - March 2010 - jurors found in favor of defendant Ford Motor Co.

Plaintiffs' attorney Jonathan Ruckdeschel of Maryland 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.

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