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Friday, February 21, 2020

Sanctions sought against asbestos lawyers for using John Crane as 'shill' to keep cases in Cook County

By Jonathan Bilyk | Nov 30, 2015

Money with gavel

Attorneys for defendants in a Cook County asbestos case have brought an action against the opposing counsel in the case, asking the court to punish the plaintiff’s attorneys and the counsel for John Crane Inc., one of the other defendants named in the case, for their alleged use of Crane as a "shill" to prevent defendants from transferring the case and others like it out of Cook County Circuit Court.

On Nov. 19, attorneys Steven B. Moore and Gregory T. Henry, of Kansas City, Mo., filed a motion on behalf of Genuine Parts Co., joining with Ford Motor Company and its attorneys from the firm of Sanchez Daniels & Hoffman, of Chicago, in demanding the court impose sanctions on attorneys from the firms of Connelly & Vogelzang, of Chicago, and O’Connell, Tivin, Miller & Burns, of Chicago, for their alleged actions in this case and others.

Moore and Henry are affiliated with the firm of Rasmussen, Willis, Dickey & Moore, of Kansas City.

Ford and the Sanchez firm had made a similar demand over similar allegations earlier in November, at the same time the court was preparing to sign off on a settlement deal to end the litigation.

According to the motion they filed, Moore and Henry alleged court inquiry would “demonstrate that there is a pattern by plaintiff’s law firm and by the law firm representing John Crane Inc. as a defendant in prior asbestos matters filed by Connelly and Vogelzang in Illinois state courts to cooperate with one another to allow John Crane to remain as a defendant in such law suits without putting on a meaningful defense, all in an effort to thwart opportunities by defendants to remove cases to federal court based in diversity of jurisdiction.”

The matter arose as the parties moved to conclude an asbestos liability lawsuit brought in February 2014 by plaintiffs Bertha and Moses Winford against a number of companies, including Dana Companies, Ford Motor Company, Genuine Parts Company and other defendants, including many who routinely land on lists of defendants in asbestos exposure complaints. The lawsuit sought damages for mesothelioma the Winfords said they contracted because of exposure to asbestos in products made by the defendant companies. That list of defendants also included John Crane Inc., a manufacturer of packing and gasket products, based in Chicago.

Following about 20 months of court proceedings, court documents indicate the parties reached a settlement agreement, and on Nov. 13, Cook County Judge Daniel Joseph Lynch ordered the case dismissed with prejudice “pursuant to settlement.”

However, Lynch said he was retaining jurisdiction over the case to consider the motions for sanctions brought by the defendants.

A status hearing was held on the sanctions motions on Nov. 20, and continued until Dec. 21, according to court records.

In the motion supplementing Ford’s filing, the attorneys for Genuine Parts Co. argued “gamesmanship” on the part of Crane’s attorneys and those for the plaintiffs, saying the plaintiffs’ attorneys installed Crane as a “straw man Illinois defendant” to “act as a shill at trial.” This, they said, deprived the defendants of their rights to remove the case to federal court and “unnecessarily lengthened the pretrial proceedings.”

They argued the court record demonstrated plaintiffs had “no good faith basis” for including Crane among the defendants on the case, as no Crane products were in use or present at the job sites on which the plaintiffs purportedly worked, and “no exposure could be identified” by any witness.

They said the “gamesmanship” began during opening statements, when Crane’s attorney purportedly “provided a potential roadmap to the jury for a compromised verdict; i.e., they could easily find no liability to John Crane and the other defendants look ‘bad’ by comparison.”

The defendants’ attorneys argued such tactics are part of a long-running cooperation between the plaintiff’s attorneys and those for Crane. Under the alleged “gamesmanship,” plaintiffs’ attorneys include Crane among the defendants to prevent the matter from being dismissed from Cook County court, and ultimately make Crane pay no damages at the conclusion of the litigation.

“In cases where John Crane is the only Illinois defendant, the pattern appears to be to have the John Crane attorney try to elicit some John Crane product identification into the case – just enough to preclude defendants from removing to federal court, but not enough to subject them to a jury award of any significance,” the attorneys for Genuine Parts wrote in their Nov. 19 filing. “Then, as the trial date approaches, the plaintiffs make no settlement demands against John Crane and John Crane offers no money.

“The Bertha Winford case illustrates this point.”

The defendants’ attorneys said they believed discovery in the matter would reveal Connelly & Vogelzang have named Crane as a defendant in “a large majority … of their asbestos cases,” and that number may approach “100 percent.” Further, they said they believed court records would reveal “Crane has not filed and argued a motion for summary judgment more than a handful of times; perhaps never” in asbestos cases brought by Connelly & Vogelzang.

And they said, they believed court records would further show “that in nearly 100 percent of the cases Connelly & Vogelzang does not dismiss John Crane until after all other defendants have been dismissed or have settled.”

They suggested the court inquire into “phone records, email chains and/or billing records between and among Connelly & Vogelzang, O’Connell/Tivin and John Crane,” as it “may reveal discussions concerning the pattern as a whole and the manner in which it played out in the Winford case in particular.”

The attorneys pointed to other asbestos cases involving their clients in which Crane was named as a defendant. In those cases, Crane’s counsel repeatedly opposed motions to transfer the case to other jurisdictions. And in at least one case, after the case was transferred, the lawsuit was refiled in Utah against all of the same defendants, with the exception of Crane, the motion noted.

The motion specifies the defendants’ attorneys are seeking the sanctions to apply only to the attorneys against whom the allegations have been leveled, and not against the Winfords or their family.

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Organizations in this Story

Sanchez Daniels and Hoffman LLPConnelly & VogelzangO'Connell Tivin Miller & Burns LLCRasmussen Willis Dickey & MooreJohn Crane Inc.Ford Motor Company