Ill. court overturns $5.5M asbestos conspiracy verdict

Steve Korris Jan. 9, 2012, 12:20pm


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline) - Five months after Illinois Fourth District appellate judges reversed a McLean County jury's asbestos conspiracy verdict against Honeywell International, another panel of the same court tossed out another conspiracy verdict against Honeywell.

On Dec. 23, three judges found Circuit Judge Scott Drazewski should have rejected a jury's $5.5 million award to three widows.

"The record contains no evidence defendant entered into an agreement with any other corporation to falsely assert asbestos was safe or to keep quiet about the dangers of asbestos, although the record contains evidence defendant, on its own, did those things," Justice James Knecht wrote.

"The evidence must be clear and convincing if a conspiracy is to be proved solely by circumstantial evidence," he wrote.

Justice Thomas Appleton, author of a July opinion that greatly reduced the range of conspiracy expert Barry Castleman, concurred in the December opinion.

Justice Robert Steigmann also concurred.

As Appleton had done in July, Knecht knocked down precedents that allowed lawyer James Walker to stage a series of sensational conspiracy trials.

Walker blames lung diseases on Honeywell as successor to brake maker Bendix, one of the companies in the conspiracy.

He also pursues conspiracy claims against Owens-Illinois and against Pneumo-Abex as successor to American Brake and Block.

The widows, whose husbands worked at Unarco asbestos plant in Bloomington, had all won separate jury verdicts years ago.

Honeywell secured new trials at the Fourth District, and Drazewski consolidated the three cases for a single trial in 2009.

Jurors awarded $2,401,000 to Doris Dukes as widow of Merlon Dukes, $1,860,000 to Ruth Watkins as widow of John Watkins, and $1,303,000 to Judy Blessing as widow of Robert Blessing.

Honeywell appealed again to the Fourth District, where a panel had already taken up an appeal of a $2.5 million verdict against Honeywell and Pneumo-Abex.

In that case, Drazewski reduced Juanita Rodarmel's compensatory damages from $2 million to $183,333, after subtracting settlements of other defendants.

The decision in that case, in July, left no apparent room for Wylder and Castleman to carry any more conspiracy cases to trial.

Appleton wrote that companies didn't have to publish a report on tumors in mice 60 years ago, because the author told them it meant nothing.

"It cannot be unlawful to hide information that is devoid of significance," he wrote.

Justices John McCullough and John Turner concurred.

The panel on the triple trial adopted the July decision whole.

"We need not repeat the court's reasoning here," Knecht wrote.

"A quick summary will suffice," he wrote.

"The fact Johns-Manville was the exclusive supplier of asbestos fiber to Bendix for many decades does not support the inference Bendix and Johns-Manville entered into an agreement to conceal the dangers of asbestos," he wrote.

He wrote that conspiracy can't be inferred from membership in a trade organization.

He wrote that implying conspiracy from a shared director would be speculation.

"We note the same evidence discussed in Rodarmel was introduced for the same purposes in this case and is equally unsatisfactory to prove a civil conspiracy in this case," he wrote.

"That evidence is as consistent with innocence as with guilt," he wrote.

He wrote that it wasn't unusual for companies in the brake industry to do business with each other.

"They were all in the same industry at the same time and the fact they did business with each other on occasion should not raise an inference of a wrongful conspiracy as it could just as easily raise the inference of ordinary commerce between companies in the same industry," he wrote.

A $90 million verdict, the biggest in 30 years of McLean County asbestos litigation, remains pending at the Fourth District.

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