Asbestos trial begins in Madison County

By Christina Stueve Hodges | Oct 12, 2012



Twelve jurors listened to lawyers argue in a Fairview Heights man's lawsuit against Ford Motor Company Friday in Madison County Associate Judge Clarence Harrison's courtroom.

Plaintiff Donald Lehr filed suit Jan. 19 against Ford Motor Company, John Crane Company and 57 other companies after learning about his mesothelioma, Dec. 21, 2011.

Plaintiff's attorney Christian Hartley blames Ford for Lehr's mesothelioma. He contends evidence will show Ford failed to do what it was required to do by law.

Ford attorney Eric Bergstrom told the jury Lehr's work at Ford did not expose him to asbestos.

Hartley began opening statements at 10:30 a.m. Friday.

"This case is about Mr. Lehr, who worked extensively with asbestos at Ford Motor Company in Hazelwood," Hartley said. "Breathing asbestos at Ford Motor Company caused his cancer."

Lehr's tumor is located in the most sensitive part of his chest, according to Hartley.

"Going through this has taken away his toughness," said Hartley, who explained evidence would reveal an excessive amount of fluid in Lehr's chest pushed his lung closed.

"Many of you have heard of asbestos. There are four to five kinds of asbestos, maybe six to seven," Hartley said. "My experts think all of these kinds of asbestos are dangerous."

"A single asbestos fiber is so small you can't see it," Hartley said. "Why is that important? When you see asbestos that means you've been exposed."

Hartley told the jury that since asbestos floats in the air, you don't have to work directly with asbestos to be exposed.

"For seven years, they didn't know the asbestos was where Don was working," Hartley said.

Lehr, a pipefitter from 1984 until his retirement in 1997, often worked seven days a week, he said.

"Was this caused by tobacco? There's no evidence tobacco played any role in causing this disease," Hartley said.

In 1983, Ford believed that most pipe insulation contained asbestos, according to Hartley.

Hartley said Ford didn't comply with regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"They didn't play by the rules," he said.

"Mr. Lehr removed asbestos-containing insulation at Ford's plant in St. Louis," Hartley said.

"I want to look at the actions of Ford Motor Company, what they should have known and what they should have done," Hartley said.

Defense attorney Eric Bergstrom told the jury Lehr learned to work with robotics. Lehr didn't remove insulation, according to Bergstrom.

He used heavy duty equipment at Ford from 1986 until his retirement in 1997.

"This is his job, heavy press. He's not maintaining the plant as Mr. Hartley told you," he said.

"Over the course of his deposition, he never, ever describes moving insulation," Bergstrom said.

"You can have an asbestos containing material and have it not be hazardous. The issue is who's disturbing the material, and is Mr. Lehr around?" Bergstrom said.

"You don't know it's asbestos until you test it, unless they test it, there's no way to know," Bergstrom said.

According to Bergstrom, Ford had "a legion of people" who examined the plant for safety.

"Ford knew these types of materials are asbestos containing, and they did something about it," Bergstrom said.

"If there was asbestos in the plant, they encapsulated it," Bergstrom said.

Nate Mudd, a partner at Maune, Raichle Hartley French & Mudd in St. Louis, also represents the plaintiff.

Manuel Sanchez, a partner at Sanchez Daniels & Hoffman in Chicago, also represents Ford.

Bergstrom works for Howard Rome Martin & Ridley in Redwood City, Calif.

Hartley is a partner at Maune Raichle Hartley French & Mudd in St. Louis.

After being sent home Friday afternoon, the jury is expected to reconvene at 10 a.m. Monday.

Madison County case number 12-L-79.

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