“Proximate Cause” to Celebrate: Evidence of Exposure to Asbestos from Source Other Than Defendant Again Required in Illinois

On July 30, 2015, an Illinois appeals panel held that a trial court committed reversible error by excluding evidence of a plaintiff’s prior work history, which the defendant sought to present as part of its “sole proximate cause defense.” The “sole proximate cause defense,” in which a defendant claims that a plaintiff’s injury resulted wholly from the conduct of some other party, was clarified for Illinois asbestos litigation in Nolan v. Weil-McLain. There, the Illinois Supreme Court held that evidence of the negligence of nonparty tortfeasors is admissible where a defendant claims the negligence of those nonparties was the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Prior to Nolan, Illinois courts had consistently barred evidence of exposures other than to the product (or at the premises) of the litigating defendant.

In Smith v. Illinois Central, Plaintiff Jim Smith filed suit against several defendants alleging exposure to asbestos while employed by GM&O Railroad (predecessor of Illinois Central Railroad Co.), leading him to contract asbestosis. Defendant Illinois Central Railroad Co. was the only remaining defendant at trial, and sought to introduce evidence that Plaintiff had worked at a Union Asbestos & Rubber Company (UNARCO) facility where he was exposed to asbestos. Plaintiff filed a motion in limine to bar the defendant from introducing any evidence that he was exposed to asbestos dust in any manner other than by virtue of his employment by that defendant. The trial judge granted the motion, and after a three week trial, the jury returned a verdict in plaintiff’s favor.

On appeal, Illinois Central argued that excluding evidence of plaintiff’s significant exposure to asbestos while working at UNARCO in effect stripped Illinois Central of its sole proximate cause defense, because the jury could have reasonably found that the single proximate cause of plaintiff’s condition was the massive dose of asbestos exposure he sustained while working at UNARCO, as opposed to the minimal dose he may have received while employed by the railroad. The Appellate Court of Illinois agreed, reversing and remanding the case for a new trial, and holding that excluding evidence of other exposures improperly deprived the defendant of a rational alternative explanation for why plaintiff was suffering from an asbestos-related disease.

The appellate panel explained that a defendant is permitted to challenge both medical causation and the allegation that the exposure in question led to the alleged disease. Thus, Illinois Central should have been allowed to present evidence in an attempt to establish that plaintiff’s UNARCO work experience was to blame for his asbestosis. The trial court’s error was “particularly egregious” in this case, the court explained, because a large portion of plaintiff’s case was based on his exposure to dust from UNARCO’s operation while working for the railroad.

The Smith opinion illustrates the practical application of Nolan, and demonstrates that Illinois courts are no longer blocking defendants from pointing to other potential proximate causes of asbestos-related disease. Where an asbestos plaintiff had minimal exposure to a defendant’s product but significant exposure to the asbestos of non-parties, and perhaps in other cases as well, Illinois defendants are armed with the right to present the highly relevant evidence of exposure from another source.