Asbestos Litigation Update / 1st Dist.

Directed Verdict Not Proper When Trial Court Presented with Minimal Evidence Regarding Exposure to Specific Brand of Product 

An Illinois appellate court, applying Illinois law, reversed the trial court’s ruling granting a motion for directed verdict and held that there was sufficient evidence to create an issue of material fact as to whether use of the defendant’s products caused the plaintiff to contract mesothelioma.

Ronnie Startley lived and worked almost all of his life in Alabama, except for a few months when he worked in Illinois.  Startley worked with drywall and used several brands of joint compounds that contained asbestos throughout his career.  After being diagnosed with mesothelioma, Startley filed a complaint in Illinois against various joint compound manufacturers, including Welco Manufacturing Company (“Welco”), claiming that asbestos from their products caused his mesothelioma.  The lawsuit only sought damages for injury caused in Illinois because Alabama’s statute of limitations would have barred the Alabama claims as untimely.

Welco filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that because the evidence did not specifically identify any particular job where Welco’s joint compound was used, the evidence was not sufficient to show that Welco’s products proximately caused Startley’s injury.   According to the evidence, Startley worked on close to 50 commercial sites, plus some houses, in the short time he worked in Illinois.  A witness recalled using four different brands of joint compound, including Welco, when he worked with Startley in Illinois, but he could not remember which brand of joint compound they used at any specific site.  The trial court denied Welco’s motion for summary judgment; however, after a jury trial, the trial court granted Welco’s motion for a directed verdict.  Startley’s estate appealed.

Under Illinois law, if a plaintiff seeks to recover damages from a manufacturer because a worker has contracted an asbestos-related disease, the plaintiff must show: “(1) [the injured worker] regularly worked in an area where the defendant’s asbestos was frequently used and (2) the injured worker did, in fact, work sufficiently close to this area so as to come into contact with the defendant’s product.”  The appellate court found that Startley developed mesothelioma after repeated exposure to asbestos and,  because the experts testified at trial that relatively low levels of exposure to asbestos contributes to causing mesothelioma, it was reasonable that a jury could find the exposures to Welco joint compound in Illinois constituted a substantial factor in causing Startley’s injury.  Thus, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s ruling for a directed verdict.

Welco unsuccessfully argued on appeal that Alabama law should apply.  The appellate court ruled that Illinois law was proper because the only damages sought were from the injuries that occurred when Startley worked in Illinois and no countervailing considerations overcame the presumption that Illinois law should apply. Startley v. Welco Manufacturing Co., 2017 IL App (1st) 153649 (May 9, 2017).