Saturday, March 29th, 2003.
Record in Madison County
By Brian Brueggemann, Belleville News-Democrat
A Madison County jury issued a $250 million verdict Friday against U.S. Steel for causing an Indiana man’s asbestos-related cancer.
The verdict is believed to be the largest ever issued by a jury in Madison County.
The jury awarded the plaintiff, 70-year-old Roby Whittington, $50 million in compensatory damages for contracting mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Whittington, of Gary, Ind., worked from 1950 to 1981 at the company’s steel mill in Gary.
The jury also ordered U.S. Steel to pay $200 million in punitive damages for failing to inform Whittington about the risk of asbestos exposure. Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron said he might issue an order later regarding the punitive damages.
Byron in recent cases has awarded punitive damages to the state of Illinois. Whittington’s attorney, Randall Bono, said the punitive damages could even be reduced.
Bono said U.S. Steel knew about the dangers of asbestos years before Whittington worked there.
“The jury expects the employer to provide a safe place to work. The jury expects the employer to warn if they know of a danger,” Bono said.
Whittington has breathing problems and cannot walk long distances. The disease is invariably fatal.
Bono said Whittington had an “air hunger” attack during the two-week trial and paramedics had to be called, but it happened while the jury was away. Whittington was not in court for the verdict.
Whittington, who grew up in the south, has a sixth-grade education. His father died when Whittington was 12. Whittington quit school to help support his family and eventually moved to Gary to work at the steel mill.
Jury foreman Keith Sugg of Granite City, who works at a steel warehouse, said the jury wanted to send a message about asbestos-related illnesses.
“They better start fixing it now, or it’s going to get worse,” Sugg said. “The old boy’s suffering. He’ll never get any better.”
Sugg said the jury went through various calculations to determine the compensatory award. On the punitive damages, each juror wrote down a suggestion, then the numbers were averaged.
“I could hardly write it down,” Sugg said. “I’ve never seen numbers that big.”
U.S. Steel attorney Ed Matushek said the company probably will appeal.
Bono said the case was tried in Madison County because other defendants in the case are from Illinois. Claims against those other defendants already have been resolved. Bono said Whittington was exposed to asbestos in other ways, such as performing home repairs involving asbestos-containing products, but most of his exposure was at U.S. Steel.
The second-largest jury verdict in the county is believed to be a $34 million judgment issued in another mesothelioma case a couple of years ago. Bono also was the plaintiff attorney in that case in which Shell Oil was the defendant.
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