Ill. court weighing asbestos conspiracy and 'take home' verdicts out of Bloomington

Steve Korris Mar. 21, 2011, 7:42am




SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline) - Defendants say they will appeal a recent McLean County jury's $90 million verdict in an asbestos conspiracy trial, but for practical purposes they already did.

Five days after jurors hit Honeywell and Pneumo Abex with $20 million each in punitive damages, Honeywell and Abex argued at the Fourth District for relief from an earlier conspiracy verdict.

The district's website posted a link to audiotape of the March 16 oral argument, which featured Justices James Knecht, Thomas Appleton and John Turner.

The Fourth District plans oral argument on another McLean County conspiracy verdict on April 28.

The court clerk will announce in April whether the same judges will hear it.

Last year Honeywell, as successor to Bendix, and Abex, successor to American Brake and Block, appealed verdicts in two other conspiracy trials with five plaintiffs.

In all the cases, clients of local lawyer James Wylder claim business owners concealed the risks of asbestos 40 to 100 years ago, in order to protect profits.

Wylder's clients hold Honeywell responsible for buying a company that bought a company that conspired with other companies.

Punitive damages matter a great deal in McLean County, because defendants set off compensatory damages by the amounts of prior settlements with other companies.

In the case set for April 28, offsets caused Circuit Judge Dennis Drazewski to reduce compensatory damages from $2,000,000 to $183,333.34.

He abided by the jury's judgment on punitive damages, entering $400,000 against Honeywell and $100,000 against Abex.

Honeywell and Abex appealed in October.

"Plaintiffs failed to present evidence of any type of outrageous conduct similar to that usually found in a crime," Michael Weaver of Chicago wrote for Honeywell.

"Even in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, Honeywell's conduct is not close to the standard required for the submission of punitive damages," he wrote.

He wrote that no evidence provided sufficient basis to hold Honeywell liable for civil conspiracy.

"Illinois law requires that there be a relationship between the plaintiff and a defendant before a court may impose a duty, so that defendants will not be subject to limitless liability to an indeterminate class of persons conceivably injured by its negligent acts," Weaver wrote.

The appeal the judges heard on March 16 didn't involve punitive damages, but instead challenged both the conspiracy theory and a theory that workers took asbestos home on their clothes.

The "take home" theory recently prevailed at the Fifth District appeals court in Mount Vernon, but defendant CSX Transportation petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court for review.

"The list of potential plaintiffs is endless," Kurt Reitz of Belleville wrote for CSX in a Supreme Court brief on Feb. 16.

Jurors at the "take home" trial in McLean County awarded $2,632,611.66 in compensatory damages to Roger Holmes for the estate of Jean Holmes.

Drazewski reduced it to $1,546,361.66.

On appeal, Craig Zimmerman of Chicago argued that Honeywell owed no duty to the decedent, evidence of conspiracy was insufficient, and Drazewski misstated the law to the jury.

"Bendix's conduct throughout the 1930s and to early 1970s was the norm in corporate and industrial America, not the exception, as portrayed by plaintiff to the jury," Zimmerman wrote.

On appeal for Abex, Reagan Simpson of Austin, Texas, argued that plaintiffs produced no evidence of duty or proximate cause.

"Abex finds itself potentially liable to persons who were never its employees, or customers, or invitees, for alleged injuries arising from raw materials Abex never used, products it did not make, manufacturing processes it did not use, and working conditions it did not create," he wrote.

In a January brief for Honeywell, Weaver attacked the "take home" theory.

"As a matter of public policy, plaintiff's theory stretches potential liability beyond reason and should be disallowed," he wrote.

The latest McLean County verdict dwarfed those awards, punishing not only Honeywell and Abex but also Owens-Illinois, at $40 million.

Jurors awarded about $9 million in compensatory damages against Honeywell, Abex, Owens-Illinois, and John Crane Inc.

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