Appellate judges withdrew portions of their official legal opinion last week in a highly publicized asbestos case in Illinois.
The judges, who rejected the jurors’ verdict in a case of asbestos exposure, softened their critical words about a key witness and his accusation of a conspiracy theory.
In the initial verdict by jurors, Juanita Rodarmel and her deceased husband was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages. The amount was later reduced to $183,000 after subjecting settlement claims, and about $500,000 in punitive damages for the defendants’ role in causing Rodarmel’s mesothelioma.
The witness, Barry Castelman, was used in the case to provide evidence that companies withheld information about the link between asbestos exposure and cancer and that a larger conspiracy was at play. He presented information about a 1943 report that found that tumors were present in laboratory mice after they were exposed to asbestos.
After reviewing the case in July, three appellate judges found that a circuit judge should have entered a judgment favoring the defendants, overruling the accusation of a conspiracy within the industry, based on a lack of evidence.
While one justice expressed his opinion, he became exceedingly critical of a particular witness by questioning his expertise and qualifications.
“He apparently was not a medical doctor or a veterinarian. We are unaware that he had any expertise in pathology,” Justice Thomas Appleton said. “More to the point, perhaps, it was unclear what qualifications, if any, that Castleman had in the field of pathology and, more specifically, in cancer experimentation with mice.”
Statements like these were eventually retracted and revised in updated versions of the judges’ opinions.
James Wylder, the asbestos lawyer who was representing Rodarmel in the case and adamantly disagrees with the outcome, questioned the actions of the justices.
“The risk when an appellate court conducts its own search, or makes its own factual determinations, is that the court does not know the record in the same way the parties know it,” Wylder wrote.
He went on to complain that the judges “‘defended” the actions of the accused companies better than they defended themselves.
Justice Appleton wrote that the mouse study was not relevant because the researcher of the experiment acknowledged that it lacked control and meant nothing.
“It cannot be unlawful to hide information that is devoid of significance,” Appleton said.
In addition to the judges modifying their opinion by removing certain criticisms of the witness and circuit judge, they also removed statements overruling two of their own precedents, instead saying that they decline to follow the precedents.
This case was one of many recent asbestos trials in Illinois. According to a local paper, as verdicts in similar cases continue to rise, some reach peaks of $90 million.