A Madison County jury returned a verdict in favor of defendant Hennessy Industries Inc. on Tuesday in a Michigan couple’s asbestos lawsuit.
The verdict was entered around 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday in Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs’ courtroom. The trial began on Feb. 7.
“You are speaking to our community with your verdict,” plaintiff attorney Tom Hart of Shrader & Associates told jurors during closing arguments earlier on Tuesday.
Hart had asked jurors to award plaintiffs Stan and Janet Urban $10 million.
Hennessy was represented in the case by Jim Lowery and Bob Rich of Gordon & Rees.
This is the first asbestos verdict in Madison County since February 2014, which also resulted in a defense verdict in favor of Crane Co.
Two asbestos cases last year ended in settlements.
Madison County sees an average of about one asbestos case go to trial per year in the nation’s busiest asbestos docket, but nearly every case has ended in a defense verdict in the past decade.
The Urbans are from West Bloomfield, Michigan, and they alleged that all of Stan Urban’s asbestos exposures occurred in Michigan.
They filed their lawsuit in Madison County in March 2013. Hennessy was the only remaining defendant.
Stan Urban alleged he was exposed to asbestos using Ammco brake grinders while employed as a high school auto technology teacher.
In January 2013, Urban was diagnosed with mesothelioma both above and below his diaphragm as a result of his asbestos exposure.
Ammco is Hennessy’s predecessor and was based out of North Chicago. Hennessy is based out of Nashville.
According to its website, Hennessy is “one of the world’s foremost aftermarket manufacturers of wheel-service equipment.”
During closing arguments, Hart asked jurors to hold Hennessy responsible for the product it sold for profit and to “render justice” by awarding the plaintiffs a total of $10 million.
Part of that $10 million request included more than $826,466 for past medical expenses and more than $639,818 in lost wages.
“Weigh it in your own mind and you’ll decide that we have the better story, we have the plausible story, the more believable story,” he said.
“It’s not an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth system we have here in America,” he later added.
He went on to ask for an additional $6 to account for the six acts of gross negligence he said Hennessy is guilty of.
Hart told jurors that while they were taking time away from the case during a one-week adjournment in the middle of trial, Urban and his family had been unable to escape the situation, always wondering when the “sword hanging over his head is going to fall.”
Hart went on to accuse Hennessy of ignoring the trial, “but they’re not going to be able to ignore you for long.”
“Without you, Stan and Janet would have no chance against this corporation, you are the equalizer,” he said.
He explained that Hennessy had the power to test its products, recall its machines, issue a retrofit or replacement part and had the power to warn, but he said it failed to do so.
Hart said Hennessy was grossly negligent and had a duty to adequately warn, which he said was a duty that could not be passed off to some other person or entity.
Hart said studies found that exposure from asbestos-containing brakes was one million times the background level, and it was known as early as the 1940s that asbestos exposure caused cancer.
However, he said Ammco never tested asbestos exposure from grinding brakes for cancer, only testing it for asbestosis.
“It’s smoke and mirrors, ladies and gentlemen,” Hart said.
He accused Hennessy of hiring experts at $500 per hour to “pull the wool over your eyes.”
After praising the plaintiffs’ experts, Hart called the defendant’s experts the “Three Stooges” and included a photo of monkeys signing the "see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" motto.
He said Dr. Dennis Bridge was the “hear no evil” monkey because he wasn’t even told what witness Craig Mountz would be testifying about.
Hart added that Bridge said he never found an asbestos fiber in his whole career and never saw an Ammco brake grinder, among other allegations.
He said Dr. Michael Graham was the “see no evil” monkey because he didn’t review testimonies.
He said Mountz was the “speak no evil” monkey because he was allegedly caught in a lie when asked if he ever spoke with salesmen about warning users of the asbestos dangers involved with brake grinding.
Lowery began closing arguments for Hennessy and told jurors that it is important that they concentrate on the facts of the case.
He said most of Urban’s asbestos exposures using Hennessy’s brake grinder occurred at Center Line High School, which amounted to a maximum of 12 total days of grinding in the nine years he worked for the school and in a 30 year career with brake grinders.
He also relied upon the bare-metal defense, saying nothing in Hennessy’s grinder contains asbestos. The machine was built and sold without any asbestos.
Lowery told jurors that 21 defendants attended Urban’s 2013 deposition and Hennessy is the only defendant left in the case.
He compared Urban’s 2013 deposition testimony with his trial testimony and highlighted some inconsistencies.
He said Urban told his lawyer that the brake grinder was pouring dust, but then later said he didn’t see much dust.
“Back and forth, back and forth,” Lowery said.
He also questioned the efficiency and effectiveness of Urban’s bag-changing habits.
Lowery said Urban only changed the bag twice per year during his deposition but then said he emptied the bag once every two weeks at trial. Lowery added that he believed Urban understood that “change” and “empty” were used interchangeably during questioning.
He also told jurors that he thought Urban was using the wrong bags to collect dust from the brake grinder, explaining that the bag Urban described is much smaller than the one designed for the machine.
“It’s highly likely the wrong bag was used,” Lowery said. “And it’s almost certain that it was the wrong size.”
Lowery went on to say that Hennessy “responsibly” followed all of the proper standards at the time.
He quoted Urban, who said, “Well I only know what I know. If somebody doesn’t tell me, as my wife says, I’m not a mind reader, tell me.”
Lowery also disputed Hart’s request for more than $800,000 in medical expenses, which was heavily debated before the jury entered the courtroom.
He said an affidavit submitted into evidence by the plaintiff stated that only $267,115 in medical expenses is not owed.
Hart later addressed this in his follow-up, saying the affidavit does not include all medical expenses and that plaintiff attorney Allyson Romani personally counted all of Urban’s paid bills to come up with the number they requested in medical expenses.
After taking a short break, Rich continued with Hennessy’s closing arguments, telling jurors that not all cases that go to trial are valid.
“If Mother Theresa was on trial, Mr. Hart would find some way to call her grossly negligent,” he said.
He explained that the law does not require people to be perfect. The law requires people to be reasonable, and reasonable people make mistakes.
Rich said that while Ammco’s conduct was not perfect, it was reasonable.
He said early studies that Ammco used as grounds for its design and warnings found that higher asbestos exposures were safe.
“They were wrong. They weren’t negligent. They were wrong,” Rich said.
Rich also addressed Hart’s allegation that the tests for asbestosis were misleading, arguing that the threshold for asbestosis and mesothelioma were the same. The tests were based upon OSHA standards, which were universal. The results showed that a worker operating a brake grinding machine would be exposed to asbestos, but wouldn’t exceed OSHA limits.
Rich went on to defend Mountz’s testimony, saying he did not have the gift of communication and had trouble with names, but that doesn’t make him a liar.
He said Mountz was uncomfortable on the stand, but he spoke the truth.
Hart also said during opening statements that he was proud to have gotten Dr. Arthur Frank to testify in the case, who he said is the only expert with experience testing and examining patients who have grinded asbestos-containing brakes.
Frank’s testimony sparked a dispute between the parties over evidence of alternative causation.
Stobbs previously barred evidence of alternative causation.
But in a Feb. 10 motion, Hennessy argues that the plaintiffs waived the order when Frank provided possible causes of Urban’s mesothelioma.
In his original complaint, Urban also alleged asbestos exposures while working at various auto dealerships in Michigan, exposures while his family remodeled their home in the early 1960s and secondary exposures from his father, who was employed from the 1950s until 1971 repairing heavy machinery.
The record does not indicate that the motion had been ruled upon.
None of the attorneys delivering closing arguments mentioned evidence of alternative exposures.
Madison County Circuit Court case number 13-L-437