Ill. court will hear $17.8M asbestos appeal

Steve Korris Jan. 30, 2012, 12:00pm


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline) - Illinois Fourth District appellate judges will review a $17.8 million jury verdict from a McLean County asbestos conspiracy trial at oral arguments on Feb. 7.

Odds run long against Bloomington conspiracy lawyers James Wylder and Lisa Corwin, who lost two verdicts on appeal last year.

In the current case, jurors awarded Jayne Menssen punitive damages of $10 million against Honeywell International and $4.3 million against Pneumo-Abex.

They awarded $3.5 million in compensatory damages against each defendant.

Menssen, a secretary at Union Asbestos and Rubber Company in Bloomington from 1967 to 1969, contracted mesothelioma.

She blamed Honeywell for her disease as successor to brake maker Bendix, and Abex as successor to American Brake and Block.

Jurors found Bendix and Abex conspired with her employer and other companies to suppress information about the hazards of asbestos.

Former circuit judge Michael Prall entered the verdict, prior to his retirement.

Wylder has staged a series of conspiracy trials featuring testimony from author Barry Castleman about events that happened 50 to 100 years ago.

A conspiracy theory allows Wylder to shift liability from bankrupt asbestos producers like Johns-Manville to solvent companies.

Fourth District precedents sustained the conspiracy theory, until last year.

At oral argument on a $2.5 million verdict last April, Justice John Turner asked Wylder if Honeywell was part of the group that employed authors of the first asbestos study.

Wylder said no.

Turner asked if Bendix took part in suppression of a second study, and Wylder said no.

For Honeywell, Coleen Baime of Chicago said Circuit Judge Scott Drazewski excluded evidence that other companies engaged in similar conduct.

"A false world was created," Baime said.

"It was the way everybody did it at the time."

She said Drazewski allowed Wylder to present circumstantial evidence while excluding Honeywell from rebutting it.

She said punitive damages exacerbated the error.

Turner and Justices John McCullough and Thomas Appleton reversed the verdict in July, expressly abandoning Fourth District precedents.

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

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

He wrote that the mouse research meant nothing because it lacked controls.

A different Fourth District panel reversed another verdict on Dec. 23, finding Drazewski should have rejected a $5.5 million against Honeywell.

Justice James Knecht wrote that there was no evidence Bendix agreed with any other corporation to falsely assert asbestos was safe or to keep quiet about its dangers.

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

Appleton and Justice Robert Steigmann concurred.

They abandoned the same precedents the previous panel abandoned.

As of Thursday, Fourth District judges hadn't identified the Feb. 7 panel.

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

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