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IL Appellate Court Overturns Existing Civil Conspiracy Law in Ruling on Asbestos Liability Case

In Rodarmel v. Pneumo Abex, L.L.C., No. 4-10-0463, the Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District, recently overturned a judgment of over $2 million against the defendants in an asbestos civil conspiracy case.  In doing so,  the Court overruled portions of two previous decisions and changed the standard of proof in civil conspiracy cases.

Two plaintiffs sued in this case: one for compensation from the effects of contracting mesothelioma from breathing asbestos fibers that her first husband carried home on his person and clothing while working for UNARCO, and the second for injury to the spousal relationship and for the medical expenses of treating his wife’s mesothelioma.  The plaintiffs did not sue UNARCO in this case, however. 

Instead, plaintiffs sued Honeywell International and Pneumo Abex on a theory of civil conpsiracy. According to the complaint, defendants conspired with UNARCO, Johns-Manville Corporation, Owens Corning, and other companies to do two things: (1) falsely assert it was safe for people to be exposed to asbestos and (2) withhold information about the harmful effects of asbestos. The jury was convinced by this theory of a conspiracy. It awarded plaintiffs $2 million in compensatory damages against defendants as well as $400,000 in punitive damages against Honeywell and $100,000 in punitive damages against Abex.

The defendants appealed, and the Appellate Court overturned the verdict for two reasons:

“First, UNARCO owed Juanita Rodarmel no duty, in the period of 1953 to 1956, to warn her against the danger of asbestos carried home on clothing (in contrast to the danger of intensive exposure to asbestos in factories). Our reason for so holding is that in 1953 through 1956, the infliction of illness merely from asbestos carried home on clothing was not reasonably foreseeable, given what was known during that period. If UNARCO would incur no liability to plaintiffs for failing to warn, in the 1950s, against the danger posed to family members by asbestos carried home on employees’ clothing, UNARCO’s alleged coconspirators, Honeywell and Abex, should incur no liability on that basis, either. Second, even if, arguendo, UNARCO owed Juanita Rodarmel a duty, the record appears to contain no evidence that in the period of 1953 to 1956 or prior thereto, either of the defendants actually entered into an agreement with any other corporation to falsely assert that asbestos was safe or to keep quiet about the dangers of asbestos, although the record contains evidence that defendants, on their own account and on their own individual initiative, did those things. Therefore, we reverse the trial court’s judgment.”

Importantly, the Court overturned portions of two cases–Dukes v. Pneumo Abex Corp., 386 Ill. App. 3d 425 (2008) and Burgess v. Abex Corp., 311 Ill. App. 3d 900 (2000)–which had previously set the standard for civil conspiracy liability in asbestos cases.  In doing so, the Court has made it more difficult to prove civil conspiracy liability.  We will see if the Illinois Supreme Court decides to take this case.

Stay tuned to the Illinois Environmental Law Blog for more news and developments.  To set up a free initial consultation to discuss your legal matter, please contact Chicago environmental attorney Dave Scriven-Young at (312) 239-9722 or dscriven-young@pecklaw.com.





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