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Nolan v. Johns-manville Asbestos





Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Hon. Paul F. Elward, Judge, presiding.


The plaintiff's decedent, Edwin L. Nolan, Jr., filed a complaint, sounding in strict liability, in the circuit court of Cook County on May 9, 1975. The complaint alleged, inter alia, that the defendants manufactured, sold and distributed asbestos, fiberglass and related products which were unreasonably dangerous because the containers were not adequately labeled so as to warn of foreseeable and known dangers associated with their use, because the defendants failed to warn of the known likelihood of contracting asbestosis due to prolonged exposure and use of the products, and because the defendants failed to provide protective equipment. On a motion joined by all the defendants, and after notice and hearing, the circuit court granted summary judgment for all defendants, on the basis that Nolan's cause of action was barred by the two-year statute of limitations (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 83, par. 15).

Nolan appealed. During the pendency of that appeal, he died. His wife was substituted as special administratrix to prosecute the appeal. The Appellate Court for the First District reversed the judgment of the circuit court and remanded the cause for further proceedings. (74 Ill. App.3d 778.) We allowed leave to appeal. (73 Ill.2d R. 315.) We affirm.

The facts are amply set forth in the appellate court opinion. A summary will suffice here. Edwin L. Nolan, Jr., was employed as an asbestos insulator from 1941 to May 11, 1973, with the exception of time spent in military service from 1943 to 1946. In 1957, Nolan became aware of shortness of breath and increasing difficulty climbing stairs. He underwent a chest X ray administered by the Suburban Tuberculosis Sanitarium, which showed he did not have tuberculosis, but indicated that he had "lung problems." Nolan consulted his family doctor, Robert Muench. Dr. Muench examined Nolan, ordered some X rays taken, and confirmed the sanitarium's statement that Nolan had lung problems, but he did not elaborate further. Dr. Muench referred Nolan to a psychiatrist, Dr. Monty Meldmann. Dr. Meldmann conducted a physical examination and ordered more X rays taken. He also told Nolan that he had lung problems, but told Nolan he thought his problem was partly psychological as well.

Nolan again sought Dr. Muench's advice in 1965, when he noticed that his earlier complaints were becoming more pronounced. Nolan was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital in Elgin, where he underwent a physical examination, pulmonary function tests, and chest X rays. During Dr. Muench's deposition, he read the reported findings of the hospital's X-ray department:

"The findings suggest a generalized pulmonary fibrosis or interstitial inflammatory process. Pneumoconiosis is a consideration to be correlated with the occupational history. Chronic interstitial pneumonia, sarcoidosis, and pulmonary fungus disease are other considerations to be correlated with the clinical and laboratory data.

The accentuated findings at the left anterior lower lung field may represent a supraimposed acute inflammation. Comparison to previous chest x-rays will be of value."

Dr. Muench testified during the course of the deposition that, while usually test findings and their causes are discussed with patients, he could not recall whether he had discussed the foregoing findings with Nolan. Nolan testified that Dr. Muench told him he had pulmonary fibrosis, but did not indicate any causal connection between his condition and his occupation. Nolan testified further that Dr. Muench told him there was nothing the doctor could do for him.

Nolan sought further medical attention from the Veteran's Administration Hospital after his discharge from St. Joseph's Hospital. He was told he was receiving competent treatment from Dr. Muench and was refused admittance to the hospital.

Sometime after 1968, the international union to which Nolan belonged began to publish "green sheets" as a supplement to its quarterly magazine, The Asbestos Worker. The green sheets detailed the findings of a physician, Dr. Irving Selikoff, concerning the relationship between exposure to asbestos materials and lung problems. Nolan was not sure when he first read the green sheets.

During May 1973 Nolan consulted an internist, Dr. Robert C. Kloempken. Nolan's symptoms consisted of a serious case of diarrhea, a weight loss of 13 pounds, shortness of breath, discomfort in the abdomen, and swelling of the feet.

Dr. Kloempken noted in his records that "He [Nolan] was told around 1957 that he had pulmonary fibrosis secondary to asbestosis." The doctor stated that this was medical terminology. He also stated under questioning by different counsel, alternatively, that he did not know whether the precise words used were Nolan's, and later, that Nolan did tell him so in those words. Finally, the doctor testified he was paraphrasing what Nolan told him.

On May 15, 1973, Dr. Kloempken diagnosed Nolan's condition as asbestosis and tuberculosis. Nolan had ceased working on May 11, 1973, and never did return to work. The complaint in this cause was filed May 9, 1975.

The issue in this case is whether the two-year statute of limitations which governs personal injury actions (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 83, par. 15) bars this action. As a preliminary contention the defendants argue that the discovery rule, which this court has applied to a number of actions, has no application in a strict liability action of this sort. In Williams v. Brown Manufacturing Co. (1970), 45 ...

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