BY SANFORD J. SCHMIDT
EDWARDSVILLE - A jury Tuesday returned a $16 million verdict in favor of an Alton area man who contracted a form of cancer from breathing asbestos while working at the now-defunct Owens-Illinois glass container plant in Alton.
"We were told it was the second largest jury verdict ever awarded in Madison County," said Pam Wise, one of the attorneys for James Crawford, 58, who worked in the Batch and Furnace Department of O-I from 1965 until the plant closed in 1983.
The verdict against Armstrong Contracting and Supply Co. of Lancaster, Pa., broke down into $8 million in compensatory damages. $7 million punitive damages to James Crawford and $1 million compensatory damages to Crawford's wife, Terry Crawford, according to Barry Julian, Wise's partner.
The company is now known as AC and S Inc.
Wise said the verdict in Madison County Circuit Court was second to another Asbestos-related verdict of $34 million against Shell Oil Co. earlier this year.
The lawyers said documents and testimony at trial indicated the company knew about the dangers of asbestos from the mid-1950s but failed to take any action, issue any warning or even tell their middle managers about the problems.
The insulation was installed at O-I in the late 1960's, they said.
O-I settled the matter in a previous workman's compensation case.
The lawyers obtained documents from AC and S in which company officials exchanged information about the dangers and how to avoid liability. Officials from AC and S could not be reached for comment. They did not dispute the medical diagnosis or whether asbestos caused it, but did dispute whether Crawford was exposed; whether it was, in fact, AC and S asbestos that caused the disease; and whether there should be punitive damages.
Crawford's lawyers said company officials were aware of the dangers because of all the workman's compensation cases that had been filed for asbestos illness.
"With all that information flying around, they had to know what was going on," said one juror in an impromptu debriefing after the trial.
Wise said Crawford is seriously ill with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining around the lungs. He is not expected to survive.
He says he will be happy just to see something come of all this," Wise said.
Julian said the disease has only one cause: asbestos. The substance was used in the insulation around the many pipes that ran through the department of 0-I where glass was melted and poured into molds making bottles and jars.
Julian said the disease may take years to develop, and Crawford became ill earlier this year. His doctor diagnosed it in March and advised him to seek legal help, Julian said.
The courts allow for a much quicker trial process in cases in which the plaintiff is not expected to live, Julian said.
The courts will not allow punitive damages once the plaintiff dies, and judges also feel the plaintiff should have a right to be heard, Wise said.
Many companies continued to use the substance as insulation despite health warnings, he said. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration finally banned asbestos in the 1970s.
The trial was held before Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron. It started on Nov. 13.
Also representing the Crawfords were Robert Evola of the Wise & Julian firm of Alton, and Shepard A. Hoffman and Mark Iola of Dallas, Texas. They are specialists in opposing the ACandS firm. Wise and Julian specialize in asbestos cases.