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Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Plaintiffs' Verdict in Asbestos Lawsuit

March 16, 2020 | Gregory Odom

Recently, the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court issued an opinion reversing the Circuit Court of McLean County in an asbestos lawsuit. In Krumwiede v. Tremco, Inc., the court determined that the plaintiffs failed to establish at trial that the decedent’s work with the defendant’s products was a substantial factor in the cause of the decedent’s illness.  This is yet another instance in which the Fourth District has reversed the Circuit Court of McLean County in an asbestos lawsuit.  The opinion should give defendants wary of trying an asbestos lawsuit in McLean County optimism about the potential for appellate relief.

In Krumwiede, the plaintiffs alleged that the decedent was exposed, in part, through his work with Tremco caulk and tape.  The decedent worked as a window glazier from the mid-1950’s to the early 1990’s.  At trial, two of the decedent’s former co-workers testified that they and the decedent used Tremco caulk and glaze in their roles as glaziers.  The witnesses, however, could not recall seeing dust emanate from the Tremco products or anything on the products’ packaging indicating that they contained asbestos. 

Plaintiff’s medical expert, Dr. Arthur Frank, testified that a person’s cumulative dose to asbestos contributes to the development of mesothelioma.  In elaborating on this opinion, Dr. Frank testified that there is no scientific way to determine what exposure to asbestos caused a person’s illness, but rather, a person’s total exposure is considered the cause of the illness.  Dr. Michael Graham, a pathologist, testified for Tremco, opining that there were amosite asbestos fibers found in the decedent’s lung tissue, but that those fibers had nothing to do with the decedent’s work with Tremco products, as those products only contained chrysotile asbestos fibers.  Dr. William Longo also testified for Tremco.  He explained that he previously tested the Tremco products and found no detectable asbestos fibers, which was because the products were thermoplastic materials.  Dr. Longo admitted, however, that he could not rule out that Tremco products released respirable asbestos fibers.  Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs.

But the appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to establish that the decedent's work with Tremco products was a substantial factor in the cause of his mesothelioma.  According to the court, simply working around Tremco products did not establish that the decedent had frequent, regular, and proximate contact with respirable asbestos fibers from the products.  The court believed that there was an absence of evidence explaining under what circumstances Tremco's products released respirable asbestos fibers.  In other words, just because the products were capable of releasing asbestos fibers did not mean they actually did so when the decedent worked with the products.  The court also determined that the plaintiff failed to present evidence showing that Tremco's products released more than a de minimis amount of asbestos fibers when the decedent encountered the products.  And while the court found that Dr. Frank's "cumulative exposure" testimony was proper under Illinois law, the court concluded that his testimony did nothing to aid the plaintiffs in meeting the “substantial factor” test under Illinois law because he did not opine that exposure from Tremco products was a substantial factor in bringing about the decedent's illness. 

This is a positive development for Illinois defendants in asbestos litigation.  Specifically, defendants should consider relying on this opinion to argue that a plaintiff cannot satisfy his or her burden of proving causation simply by establishing that a defendant’s products can release asbestos fibers.  
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The BSCR Product Liability Blog examines significant developments, trends, and topics in product liability law of interest to individuals and product manufacturers, distributors and sellers. Learn more about the editor, David E. Eisenberg,  and our Product Liability practice.

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