Illinois Appeals Court Reverses $3.2 MM Asbestos Verdict: Contact With Product Capable of Releasing Fibers Not Enough To Establish Causation

In Krumwiede v. Tremco, Inc., 2020 IL App (4th) 180434, an Illinois appeals court reversed a $3.2 million award against a defendant-manufacturer in an asbestos case finding plaintiffs failed to meet the minimum threshold of evidence required to bring the question of causation before a jury. The decision ruled that plaintiffs must present more than evidence of frequent, regular, and proximate contact with a product that is capable of releasing asbestos to bring the question of causation before the jury.

Plaintiffs presented testimony of two of decedent’s co-workers that Decedent was exposed to asbestos from two Tremco products – “440 tape” and “mono caulk” –that Decedent worked with “just about every day” as a window glazier from approximately the mid-1950s until the early 1990s. Those co-workers denied, however, seeing any visible dust created from that work. Plaintiffs further presented the expert testimony of Dr. Arthur Frank. Dr. Frank opined that there was no scientific way to determine which exposure caused plaintiff’s disease and that “it is the cumulative exposure, the totality of the exposure . . . that causes the disease.” He further opined that “all of the exposures that [decedent] had from any and all products [including Tremco’s] of any and all fiber type would have contributed to his developing his mesothelioma.” This has been termed as the “cumulative exposure theory.”

Dr. Frank also testified that Tremco’s products were capable of releasing asbestos fibers because he never encountered an asbestos-containing product that would not release asbestos fibers, and that in his 40 years of experience he had “looked at” cases involving similar products and affirmed that they could release asbestos.

Notably, the panel found Dr. Frank’s testimony “remarkably similar to his testimony in McKinney.” In McKinney, 2018 IL App (4th) 170333, (brought by the same plaintiffs’ law firm and decided by the same appellate court) a welder filed suit against a welding-rod manufacturer alleging exposure to asbestos from the welding rods caused his mesothelioma. Plaintiff alleged exposure from the rubbing together of the welding-rods near his workspace. Dr. Frank testified that he never encountered a product that could not release asbestos. In McKinney, however, Dr. Frank testified that he further relied on welding-rod studies for the basis that the welding-rods were capable of releasing asbestos. Applying the asbestos causation standard as set forth by the Illinois Supreme Court in Thacker and Nolan, the McKinney court found that while the welding rods were capable of releasing asbestos, plaintiff failed to present evidence of exposure to respirable asbestos from defendant’s product to bring the question of causation before the jury.

In Krumwiede, Tremco appealed and argued, as defendant did in McKinney, that it was entitled to a judgment n.o.v., because plaintiff failed to present evidence of exposure to respirable asbestos fibers from the caulk or tape to establish that it was a substantial factor in causing decedent’s disease. As in McKinney, the court again found there was insufficient evidence to establish that plaintiff was exposed to asbestos such that it was not de minimis but was a substantial factor in causing his disease:

“In this case, even accepting that Tremco’s 440 Tape and Mono caulk were capable of releasing respirable asbestos fibers, the evidence was otherwise lacking with respect to the element of substantial factor causation. In particular, there is no evidence in the record showing when, and under what circumstances, Tremco’s products released respirable asbestos fibers, whether circumstances causing the release of respirable asbestos fibers were the type that would have been regularly encountered by decedent when using Tremco’s products, or whether the release of fibers from Tremco’s products was anything more than minimal.”

In addition to its substantial factor causation analysis, the panel reached several other issues not previously addressed in McKinney. First, while it appears that some level of actual exposure, more than de minimis, is required to meet the Thacker test, the panel agreed with Plaintiffs that they were not required to quantify the number of asbestos fibers to which decedent was exposed. The Panel also rejected Plaintiffs’ arguments that Dr. Frank’s cumulative exposure theory is contrary to Illinois law and substantial factor causation. (See our other posts on the cumulative exposure theory, here, here, and here.)

Krumwiede offers Illinois defendants a favorable application of causation law, consistent with Illinois’ current trend in asbestos cases. Practically speaking, this trend could also add the burden and cost of additional plaintiff experts who can opine as to the specific exposures from the products at issue.

Connecticut Rejects Asbestos Plaintiff’s Effort to Assert Environmental Exposure Claim

11-23A Connecticut state court jury recently returned a defense verdict in case alleging injury from exposure to asbestos that drifted into the air from a facility, but in doing so thrust to the forefront the potential of future similar claims in Connecticut. In Lagerberg v. Armstrong International, Inc., plaintiffs’ decedent was a former factory worker at Rogers Corporation in Killingly, Connecticut between 1958 and 1978. Rogers conceded that the decedent was exposed to raw asbestos and asbestos-containing materials during his employment at the facility. In an effort to avoid the exclusivity of the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Act, plaintiffs also alleged that decedent’s condition was then exacerbated by exposure to airborne asbestos particles that drifted away from the plant to his neighborhood, which at times was as close as 830 feet from the Rogers facility and at other times as far away as several miles.

In pitching this theory to the jury, plaintiffs highlighted at length that even when decedent had clocked out for the day, he was still being exposed to asbestos when he went home, when he was around town at the grocery store, the post office, Little League, running errands and visiting friends and family. Plaintiffs’ counsel made every effort to paint a picture of constant and cumulative exposure that was a substantial contributing cause of the decedent’s mesothelioma.

Defendant conceded causation due to the occupational exposures. Was this a risky approach? Not really, because to argue otherwise would have resulted in a loss of credibility with the jury. The defense argued that in the face of that massive work place exposure, these “environmental” claims were specious.

Under Connecticut law, negligence contributes materially to the production of an injury if its causative effects remain in active operation until the moment of injury, or at least until the setting in motion of the final active injurious force which immediately produces or precedes the injury. By this definition, negligence which makes only a remote, a trivial or an inconsequential contribution to the production of an injury is not a substantial factor in bringing about the injury, and thus cannot be proximate cause of the injury. See Doe v. Manheimer, 212 Conn. 748, 757-58 (1989) quoting Kowal v. Hohfer, 181 Conn. 355, 359-60 (1980). Therefore, the court instructed the jury that it had to find that the environmental exposure in and of itself was sufficient to cause the decedent’s mesothelioma and thereafter to apply a substantial factor analysis. Ultimately, the jury found that the inhaling of asbestos particles by the Plaintiffs’ decedent away from the Rogers’ facility was not the proximate cause (substantial factor) of decedent’s malignant mesothelioma. While the jury has reached a verdict in this case, the story isn’t yet over. Recently, counsel for the Lagerberg family filed a motion seeking a new trial on the grounds of discovery of new evidence. Whether this new evidence will entitle Plaintiffs to a new trial has yet to be determined.

Putting aside the issue of a potential new trial in Lagerberg, certain questions must be asked about the underlying verdict and its ramifications moving forward. Would a purely environmental exposure claim receive the same treatment from a Connecticut jury? In other words, would a plaintiff claiming asbestos-related disease, with no occupational exposure but solely based upon living within close proximity to a manufacturing facility that used raw asbestos, be able to establish substantial factor causation? The answers to those questions will likely be answered soon, as the law firm that represented the plaintiffs in Lagerberg filed that precise claim against Rogers Corporation and others within a month of the Lagerberg verdict.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Exposes Plaintiff Scheme To Suppress Asbestos Exposure Evidence

On January 10, 2014, the Hon. George R. Hodges, United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of North Carolina, handed down a decision that promises to be a “game changer” for asbestos manufacturers facing potentially crushing mesothelioma death claims. Top Bloomberg BNA Toxics Law reporter, Perry Cooper, discussed the decision and its potential ramifications in her recent article titled, “Sides Fiercely Divided Over Impact of Garlock Asbestos Bankruptcy Court Order” (2/26/14).

The issue before the Bankruptcy Court was how to determine a reasonable and reliable estimate of Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC’s (“Garlock”) liability for present and future mesothelioma claims. The court rejected the asbestos claimants’ $1.3 billion liability estimate in favor of Garlock’s $125 million estimate, an order of magnitude less.  Why did it do so?

The court initially determined that Garlock’s products resulted in a relatively low exposure to asbestos to only a limited population and that its legal responsibility for causing mesothelioma was relatively de minimis. During the early phase of the asbestos litigation in the 1980’s – when Garlock was generally named in complaints naming 20-50 more defendants – Garlock was very successful in settling its cases.

However, things changed for the worse by the early 2000’s, by which time large thermal insulation defendants had filed for bankruptcy and were no longer participants in the tort system. As the focus of plaintiffs’ attention turned to Garlock, as one of the remaining solvent defendants, evidence of plaintiffs’ exposure to other asbestos products often disappeared. As a result, plaintiffs’ law firms used their control over the evidence to drive up the settlements demanded of Garlock.

The crux of the court’s determination was that plaintiffs routinely denied exposure to other [bankrupt] companies’ asbestos products in pre-trial discovery and at trial, while often shortly thereafter filing multiple claims under oath with asbestos bankruptcy trusts. The “double-dipping” described by Judge Hodges where, for example, a plaintiff denies any exposure to insulation products, but after the case is settled, files 23 Trust claims, appears to be a widespread practice.

This conduct violates court rules and should be severely sanctioned if and when it comes to light. This decision shines a bright light on unethical practices in the plaintiff asbestos bar that may be a game changer particularly for manufacturers whose legal responsibility for causing mesothelioma, like Garlock, is relatively de minimis. It is the small players who are being pummeled by the lack of disclosure provided in these cases who should be seeking relief.

Garlock was able to demonstrate that in cases where it was able to obtain evidence of filed Trust claims and use them at trial, it generally had a successful trial result. In contrast, the thermal insulation defendants’ exodus from the tort system and the subsequent “disappearance” of evidence of exposure to their products, necessitated a sea change in Garlock’s negotiating and trial strategy.

Garlock demonstrated that the availability of comprehensive asbestos exposure information was often the difference between winning and losing at trial. If plaintiffs’ suppression of exposure evidence occurred in litigation against other defendants besides Garlock, it has likely resulted in higher asbestos settlements and judgments by as much as several hundred millions of dollars. At the same time, the contingency fees harvested by plaintiff lawyers in the asbestos litigation are staggering. But we should not assume that every plaintiff law firm improperly withholds exposure evidence. Cases should be examined on a case-by-case basis.

However, asbestos manufacturers are likely to bring increasing pressure on asbestos courts to compel plaintiffs to produce comprehensive evidence of asbestos exposure. The cookie-cutter management of large asbestos dockets often sweeps the legitimate concerns of asbestos defendants, particularly the smaller players, under the rug.

Trial courts should be encouraged to come up with creative means of ensuring judicial fairness. Depending upon the jurisdiction, this may involve having the trial court retain jurisdiction to reduce a verdict or settlement to account for post-verdict claims brought against other entities, who were not identified in the trial court. Alternatively, plaintiffs should be required to file Trust claims forms before trial or be judicially estopped from doing so after settlement.

RICO claims have been successfully brought against plaintiff law firms for fraud in the past. Judge Hodges’ decision, and the underlying evidence upon which it is based, provides Garlock with strong ammunition to pursue RICO claims. Additionally, the law firms identified by Judge Hodges may be subject to increasing scrutiny by the asbestos courts in the jurisdictions where they practice. Like the asbestos defendants of yesteryear, these well-heeled plaintiff law firms make for deep-pocketed defendants.