Jurors reach mixed verdict in asbestos lung cancer trial

By Jon Campisi | May 26, 2011

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury found that a company dealing in asbestos did, in fact, deploy products known to be defective and harmful, but was not directly responsible for a deceased man’s lung cancer diagnosis six years ago.

In May 2005, the estate of Herman Dickerson, an Aston, Pa. man who for years worked as a laborer around asbestos related products, filed a personal injury claim, alleging that Dickerson’s employment history was a direct cause of his October 2004 lung cancer diagnosis.

Dickerson passed away from the disease in January 2005.

By the time phase one in the two-week trial wrapped up late last week, the eight-member jury had awarded the Dickerson estate $100,000 in compensatory damages.

On Tuesday, however, the jury came back with a mixed verdict in phase two, saying defendant John Crane Inc. was the only one of out four defendants on trial who knowingly allowed a defective or harmful product to be handled by workers, according to attorney Richard P. Hackman, of the firm Howard, Brenner & Nass, P.C., who represented the plaintiff in the mass tort case.

On the second question asked on their verdict sheet, however, the jury checked off “no” on the line that asked if John Crane’s product was a real and factual cause of Dickerson’s lung cancer, Hackman said.

“There wasn’t any issue between us on question one,” Hackman said, meaning the defense conceded that there was a defective and/or harmful product at play. “[Defense attorney Daniel] Griffin agreed that the issue wasn’t really question one.”

In court Monday, Griffin, of the Illinois law firm O’Connell & Associates, P.C., had maintained that John Crane’s gaskets and packing materials didn’t contain the levels of asbestos fibers that could lead to lung cancer.

At the time, Griffin said expert testimony showed that the levels of asbestos found at John Crane worksites was roughly equal to that of the levels found in the air around us.

Companies dealing in insulation, however, contained higher asbestos levels, Griffin had said.

The jury agreed with Griffin to some extent, which is reflected in its verdict.

The case originated from a six-year-old lawsuit that named as defendants scores of companies for whom Dickerson had either worked for during his career, or those that manufactured or distributed products Dickerson eventually came into contact with.

Many of the defendants settled out of court, Hackman said by phone Wednesday, including the three that were scheduled to go to trial alongside John Crane Inc. They were A.W. Chesterton, Inc., Brand Insulation, Inc., and Owens-Illinois, Inc.

The latter, Hackman said, technically didn’t make asbestos-related products during the years in question, the time period during which Dickerson is alleged to have come into contact with the fibers that eventually led to his demise. Owens-Illinois, Inc., had actually been sold to another company at some point in time, a company that ended up going bankrupt, Hackman said.

In the end, the only defendant to go to trial was John Crane Inc., which was represented by two attorneys.

Asbestos cases are tried using what is termed reverse bifurcation, which is when monetary damages are determined in the first phase of the trial, with liability determined secondly.

The Dickerson trial was presided over by Common Pleas Court Judge Ricardo Jackson.

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