Asbestos Jury Verdict Reversed by Illinois Appellate Court on Issue of Sole Proximate Cause Where Prior Work History Was Excluded

The 4th District of the Illinois Appellate Court in the case of a former railroad employee, James Smith, reversed the jury’s verdict finding that the trial judge had been wrong in preventing the defendant from presenting evidence regarding the plaintiff’s prior work history.

Smith was a former railroad employee of the Illinois Central Railroad who sued it for breach of duty to provide employees with a safe place to work under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.

Smith was exposed to dust as a result of the use of asbestos products at the railroad yard, which included exposure to dust from the neighboring facility that made asbestos insulation. Smith had worked three months at the neighboring asbestos plant before he came to work for Illinois Central Railroad. He left that job because he said it was dirty.

In a pretrial hearing, Smith’s counsel moved to prohibit the defendant from introducing any evidence that he was “exposed to asbestos dust in any manner other than by virtue of [his] employment by defendant.” Illinois Central Railroad expressed concerns that the motion would prohibit evidence showing that Smith previously worked and was exposed at another asbestos plant.

Smith responded by stating that the defense denied the plaintiff was sick from asbestos exposure, not that the asbestos plant was the sole proximate cause of plaintiff’s asbestosis and therefore his work history was not at issue.

Illinois Central Railroad countered, “The jury could reasonably find that if [plaintiff] has the disease, it could have been caused by what could have likely been more extensive exposure at [the asbestos plant].”

The trial judge granted the plaintiff’s motion in limine “in the absence of any evidence as to sole proximate cause.” The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Smith. The defendant Illinois Central Railroad appealed arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by not allowing defendant to introduce evidence that Smith worked at the asbestos plant for 3 months before working at Illinois Central Railroad. According to the defendant, excluding evidence of the plaintiff’s significant exposure to asbestos while working at the asbestos plant in effect stripped it of its defense of sole proximate cause.

In the Illinois Appellate Court decision it cited the Illinois Supreme Court decision of Leonardi v. Loyola University of Chicago, 168 Ill.2d 83 (1995) where the Supreme Court stated “that in any negligence action, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving not only duty and breach of duty, but also that the defendant proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury.” The element of proximate cause is an element of the plaintiff’s case. The defendant is not required to plead lack of proximate cause as an affirmative defense.

In another case cited, Nolan v. Weil-McLain, 233 Ill.2d 416 (2009), the plaintiff argued that “other exposure evidence” in the context of an asbestos case is relevant only if the defendant mounts a sole proximate cause defense. Otherwise, according to the plaintiff, evidence that another’s negligence might have been a proximate cause is irrelevant and therefore properly excluded if introduced for the purpose of shifting liability to a concurrent tortfeasor. The appellate court disagreed with that analysis. The appellate court found that the defendant Illinois Central Railroad was not trying to shift blame to a concurrent tortfeasor, but instead was trying to cast doubt on the plaintiff’s assertion that the defendant was a proximate cause of the injury.

The Illinois Appellate Court for the 4th District, based on the Illinois Supreme Court’s opinion in Leonardi and Nolan, held that the defendant did not have to prove anything. The defendant did not need to establish that the asbestos plant was the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff’s condition. For the plaintiff to prevail, he had to establish the defendant was a proximate cause of his asbestosis. While the defendant had no obligation to do so, it should have been allowed to present evidence of the plaintiff’s work experience in an attempt to establish the plaintiff’s exposure at the asbestos plant was to blame for the disease. Accordingly, the Illinois court found the trial judge’s error egregious and therefore reversed the verdict and remanded the case for a new trial.

Smith v. Illinois Central Railroad Co., 2015 IL App (4th) 140703 (2005).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling construction accident cases, work injury cases, truck accident cases and automobile accident cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Palos Park, Gurnee, Arlington Heights, Tinley Park, Kenilworth, Elmhurst, Schiller Park, Mount Prospect, Joliet and Waukegan, Ill.

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