Madison County “Judicial Hellhole” Designation Sees Signs of Changing
Madison County, Illinois has traditionally been dubbed the “judicial hellhole” of asbestos litigation, but this designation shows signs of changing. In the first half of 2016, this venue had 29 percent of the nation’s asbestos filings. It has a history of unfair docketing practices, denial of forum non conveniens motions, and large plaintiff verdicts. Full-blown jury trials in asbestos litigation are rare for various reasons, not the least of which is the threat of multi-million dollar plaintiff verdicts, but in recent years Madison County jury verdicts have favored a wide variety of defendants over plaintiffs. Defense verdicts have ranged from premises and joint compound defendants to naval suppliers and automotive brake grinders. This significant trend may serve to quell the fears of defendants being served with complaints in this jurisdiction, and may provide a more balanced judicial forum.
One of the first jury verdicts indicating a trend in favor of defendants was in the case of Harry Glass, special administrator of the estate of Mary Glass, deceased v. NL Industries, No. 06-L-278. Plaintiff Harry Glass alleged secondary exposure to his wife Mary after she died of mesothelioma, from his work at National Lead in Granite City, Illinois. The jury returned a defense verdict for NL Industries in less than two hours.
In November 2013 the jury returned a defense verdict, this time in a living mesothelioma case, James Reef v. Georgia Pacific LLC, No. 12-L-2069. Despite the plaintiff’s claim of spending 50 percent of his time working on drywall with Georgia Pacific joint compound during his career as a carpenter, the jury returned a defense verdict for Georgia Pacific after only three hours of deliberation. Both the amount and type of asbestos the plaintiff was exposed to were the deciding factors. Although there was no argument that the plaintiff used Georgia Pacific’s products, the question was how much. At the end of the day, the jury did not believe that the amount and type of asbestos associated with Georgia Pacific products was strong enough to result in mesothelioma.
The defense trend continued shortly thereafter with a verdict in favor of Crane Co. in February 2014. In Brian King, special administrator of the estate of Tom King, deceased v. Crane Co., No. 13-L-31, the decedent was a U.S. Navy machinist’s mate from 1959-62, and from 1965-69. He repaired pumps, valves, gaskets, and insulation aboard WWII era destroyers. The plaintiffs alleged that exposure to asbestos-containing gasket material contributed to decedent’s mesothelioma. The jurors found that the plaintiffs failed to prove that Crane’s asbestos-containing gasket material, Cranite, was aboard the naval ships, and there was not enough evidence to show that Crane knew that it should have had warnings on its products.
Most recently, in February 2017 the jury rendered a verdict in favor of defendant Hennessy Industries, Inc. In Stan and Janet Urban v. Hennessy Industries, Inc., No. 13-L-437, Stan Urban alleged exposure using brake grinders while employed as a high school auto technology teacher in Michigan. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in January 2013. Defense counsel highlighted the fact that the plaintiff’s asbestos exposure from using Hennessy’s brake grinder amounted to 12 days out of a 30 year career with brake grinders. The grinders were built and sold without any asbestos, and the plaintiff’s deposition and trial testimonies contained inconsistencies.
Madison County is traditionally a tough jurisdiction for defendants. Its blue collar, conservative mentality is difficult to overcome with legal defenses, and prior judges were not exactly open to defense arguments. If more defendants push cases to trial and are successful, like the defendants outlined above, there would be a reduction in the cases filed in this venue. This would entail defendants taking a risk on a jury determination. Until such risks are more frequently taken and rewarded with defense verdicts, plaintiffs will continue to flood Madison County with numerous actions. Time will tell if more defendants are willing to try a case in this venue and we will continue to report any developments as they occur.