Illinois Supreme Court Overturns Ban on Prior Asbestos Evidence

April 17, 2009

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI) praised the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court to order a new trial in an important asbestos litigation case, Nolan v. Weil-McLain (No. 103137).

The case involves Clarence Nolan who died as a result of mesothelioma, a cancerous condition caused by exposure to asbestos, the PCI said.

In the current ruling, the state Supreme Court held the defendant, Weil-McLain, “should not be precluded from presenting evidence of the decedent’s other exposures to asbestos in support of its sole proximate cause defense.” Earlier courts had barred such evidence.

In its decision summary, the Court explained: “The victim, who worked for 38 years as a millwright, plumber, pipefitter and boilermaker, began his career in 1952 and died before trial of mesothelioma, a cancerous condition. Originally, 12 defendants were sued, but all except defendant Weil-McLain either settled or were dismissed.

“As to Weil-McLain, it was alleged that the decedent had been exposed to asbestos when he installed, repaired or removed boilers manufactured by it. The plaintiff was successful in excluding evidence of the decedent’s other asbestos exposures, which did not involve the defendant’s products.

“The jury returned a $2,368,000 verdict for the plaintiff, against which the circuit court later set off the amounts paid earlier by the other defendants. The appellate court affirmed.”

The PCI said that with its current decision the Court clarifies the “Lipke rule” that had prevented Illinois juries from learning about all of a plaintiff’s exposure to products and sources of asbestos.

PCI noted that the trial court had relied upon prior decisions of the appellate court and the Supreme Court in regards to “Lipke rule” and held that the one remaining defendant in this case could not introduce evidence of the plaintiff’s exposure to other asbestos in support of the defendant’s contention that the other exposure was the sole proximate cause of the illness.

Also relying upon the “Lipke rule,” the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the lower courts erred by excluding evidence that the plaintiff worked in a number of high-exposure environments. Due to the interpretation of the “Lipke rule”, jurors only heard about the exposure to the defendant’s asbestos-containing product. By limiting the evidence, jurors were led to conclude that the plaintiff was exposed only to asbestos of the defendant and that this exposure caused the plaintiff’s asbestos-related disease, PCI said.

Sources: PCI, www.; Illinois Supreme Court, www.

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