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Jones v. Pneumo Abex LLC

Supreme Court of Illinois

December 19, 2019

JOHN JONES et al, Appellees,
v.
PNEUMO ABEX LLC et al, Appellants.

          JUSTICE KARMEIER delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Burke and Justices Garman and Neville concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          KARMEIER, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 At issue in these consolidated appeals is whether Owens-Illinois, Inc. (Owens-Illinois), and Pneumo Abex LLC (Pneumo Abex) may have conspired with others to suppress information regarding the dangers of exposure to asbestos. Twenty years ago, in McClure v. Owens Corning Fiberglas Corp., 188 Ill.2d 102 (1999), we held that jury verdicts entered against Owens Corning and Owens-Illinois, Inc., based on claims of civil conspiracy virtually identical to those asserted here could not stand and that those defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Our appellate court reached the same conclusion with respect to similar claims of civil conspiracy leveled against Pneumo Abex. Rodarmel v. Pneumo Abex, L.L.C, 2011 IL App (4th) 100463; Menssen v. Pneumo Abex Corp., 2012 IL App (4th) 100904; Gillenwater v. Honeywell International, Inc., 2013 IL App (4th) 120929 (also affirming entry of judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n.o.v.) in favor of Owens-Illinois as well as upholding summary judgment for both defendants and against a spouse on a related loss of consortium claim). Applying the foregoing precedent, the circuit court in this case granted summary judgment in favor of Owens-Illinois and Pneumo Abex on plaintiffs' claims that the companies had been part of a conspiracy to conceal the harmful effects of exposure to asbestos. The appellate court, however, reversed and remanded for further proceedings, holding that genuine issues of fact remained, precluding summary judgment. 2018 IL App (5th) 160239. For the reasons that follow, we now reverse the appellate court's judgment and remand to that court for further proceedings.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In February 2013, John Jones and his wife, Deborah, filed this action in the circuit court of Richland County to recover damages they suffered when John contracted lung cancer. The Joneses' complaint alleges that John's lung cancer resulted from his exposure to asbestos, "including asbestos from one or more" of the numerous companies named as defendants in the case, while he was involved in the construction industry "from 1962 through the 1970's" and while he repaired the brakes on motor vehicles he owned during the same time period.[1]

         ¶ 4 Only two of the named defendants are involved in this appeal, Owens-Illinois and Pneumo Abex. Both were alleged to have been "in the business of manufacturing and distributing asbestos and asbestos containing products." Specifically, Pneumo Abex is claimed to have made some of the brake linings and pads John used when repairing his vehicles, while Owens-Illinois manufactured Kaylo brand pipe covering, an insulation product alleged to have been present at construction sites where John worked.

         ¶ 5 The Joneses' six-count complaint sought to hold Owens-Illinois and Pneumo Abex liable on various theories. Count I asserted that these defendants and others knew that asbestos was dangerous but conspired to misrepresent its dangers and to falsely represent that exposure to asbestos and asbestos-containing products was safe or nontoxic. Count I further alleged that Owens-Illinois and Pneumo Abex similarly conspired to "fail to provide information about the harmful effects of asbestos to exposed persons."

         ¶ 6 Numerous specific acts were alleged to have been performed in furtherance of this conspiracy. Specifically, the Joneses asserted that "[o]ne or more of the Conspirators," a group that included Owens-Illinois and Pneumo Abex,

"a) sold asbestos products which were used at the locations where John Jones worked without warning of the hazards known to the seller, including the sale and use of products of Johns-Manville, Owens Corning, and Owens-Illinois, which exposed John Jones to asbestos;
b) refused to warn its own employees about the hazards of asbestos known to it, specifically included is the refusal of Unarco and Owens Corning to warn their employees at the Bloomington, Illinois plant during the years 1951-1972;
c) edited and altered the reports and drafts of publications initially prepared by Dr. Lanza concerning the hazards of asbestos during the 1930's;
d) agreed in writing not to disclose the results of research on the effects of asbestos upon health unless the results suited their interests;
e) obtained an agreement in the 1930's from the editors of ASBESTOS, the only trade magazine devoted exclusively to asbestos, that the magazine would never publish articles on the fact that exposure to asbestos caused disease, and sustained this agreement into the 1970's;
f) suppressed the dissemination of a report by Dr. Gardner in 1943 which was critical of the concept that there was a safe level of asbestos exposure;
g) through their control of the Asbestos Textile Institute (ATI), defeated further study of the health of workers when William Hemeon graphically demonstrated the need for such study and dissemination of information in the 1940's;
h) edited and altered the reports and drafts of publications regarding asbestos and health initially prepared by Dr. Vorwald during 1948-1951;
i) suppressed the results of the Fibrous Dust Studies conducted during 1966-74 by the Industrial Health Foundation, Inc., Johns-Manville, Raybestos Manhattan, Owens Corning, Pittsburgh Corning Corporation and PPG Industries, which results demonstrated and confirmed that exposure to asbestos caused lung cancer and mesothelioma;
j) acting under the name of NIMA, published a pamphlet entitled 'Recommended Health Safety Practices for Handling and Applying Thermal Insulation Products Containing Asbestos' in which they purported to inform readers about the health hazards of airborne asbestos, but withheld, among other facts, that asbestos caused serious disease and death, including cancer, that there was no cure for asbestos disease, and that there was no known safe level of exposure to asbestos;
k) purchased asbestos which did not contain warnings from coconspirators, to which the purchaser then exposed its own employees without warning of the hazards known to the seller and purchaser, including the purchase of asbestos by Owens-Illinois from Unarco;
l) refused to warn its employees who had to use asbestos-containing materials in the manufacture of other products of the conspirator of the hazards of exposure to asbestos known to the conspirator, including the refusal of Owens-Illinois to warn its employees who were exposed to asbestos in connection with the manufacture of glass products of the hazards of asbestos known to Owens-Illinois;
m) purchased asbestos which did not contain warnings from coconspirators, to which the purchaser then expected [sic] its own employees without warning of the hazards known to the seller and purchaser, including the purchase of asbestos by Bendix (n/k/a Honeywell) from Johns-Manville;
n) refused to warn its employees who had to use asbestos-containing materials in the manufacture of other products for the conspirator of the hazards of exposure to asbestos known to the conspirator, including the refusal of Bendix to warn its employees who were exposed to asbestos in connection with the ...

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