Ivana Peraica Stamatakis, as Administratrix of the Estate of Ivo J. Peraica, and Milica Peraica, Individually v. A.O. Smith Water Products Co., et al.: A New York jury has awarded $35 million in damages to the estate of a man who died from cancer after years of inhaling asbestos at his job.
Though the jury assigned the largest share of blame to the Stamford-based Crane Co., the company may end up only having to pay 15 percent because jurors also found dozens of other businesses liable. The plaintiff’s lawyers, however, plan to argue at a post-trial hearing that because jurors found that Crane Co. acted recklessly, the company should have to pay as much as 55 percent of the $35 million.
On its website, Crane bills itself as a "diversified manufacturer of highly engineered industrial products" with 11,000 employees worldwide and 2012 sales of $2.58 billion. Founded in Chicago in 1855, the company headquarters eventually relocated to New York and, most recently, to Stamford. Though it did not make asbestos, Crane used the heat-resistant, fibrous material as insulation in some of its products.
"Companies like Crane Co. made millions knowing that workers handling their products would come in contact with asbestos, but never provided warnings," said Danny R. Kraft Jr. of Weitz & Luxenberg in New York City. "What’s even more alarming is that Crane Co. admitted at trial to having knowledge about the dangers of asbestos that dates to the 1930s."
Ivo John Peraica came to America on Memorial Day weekend in 1978 and settled with his family in Queens, N.Y. A couple days later, he began working for local contractors, removing asbestos insulation from boilers, pumps and other equipment and replacing it with non-asbestos products.
During the course of Peraica’s work, asbestos dust was stirred up. Years of inhaling it led to an eventual onset of mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer that attacks the lungs and is caused exclusively by long-term contact with asbestos. Peraica came down with symptoms in April 2011, was diagnosed with cancer in August 2011, and passed away at age 64 during a holiday break from the trial on December 28, 2012.
"The guy truly suffered tremendously throughout that entire time," said Kraft. The attorney said Peraica underwent extensive chemotherapy. But towards the end, his tumor grew and began pressing against his intestines, which filled with fluid, causing extreme pain.
Kraft said one of Peraica’s daughters, Ivana, provided emotional testimony about how much her father suffered. Peraica is survived by his wife, Milica, and three daughters and five grandchildren.
The family filed a lawsuit in New York state court against Crane Co. and other makers of asbestos-containing products and equipment that Peraica handled in his job.
Some 40 companies were listed on the sheet given to jurors, who were asked to determine exactly who was liable for Peraica’s cancer. Many of the companies have either closed or are in bankruptcy and protectected from lawsuits. Among the latter is Johns Manville, an insulation and roofing company from Woodstock, Conn., said Kraft.
Many of the companies were found one percent at fault by the jurors. The highest level of fault was allocated to Crane and Johns Manville, both at 15 percent.
Lawyers representing Crane argued that their client was not liable, pointing the finger instead at the companies that made the asbestos insulation and even Peraica himself for not guarding against exposure.
The defense also claimed Peraica had no evidence that Crane supplied, sold, or manufactured any of the insulation he removed while on the job. Further, the defense lawyers said Peraica’s employer should be at fault for not warning him of the dangers of asbestos.
The lead attorney for Crane Co., James Lowery, of K&L Gates in Dallas, referred comment to his supervisor, Terry Budd, a K&L Gates partner in Pittsburgh, who manages all of the firm’s asbestos cases.
Budd said the jury’s verdict is "excessive" and contrary to established New York appellate law. He said a previous verdict in upstate New York was overturned because the court ruled that a manufacturer that uses asbestos in its products cannot be found liable for asbestos made by another company.
"The plaintiffs admitted they had no evidence that any of the products came from Crane Co.," said Budd. "It was insulation that they contended caused the injury."
Budd said Crane Co. will appeal the jury’s verdict.
A centerpiece of the trial was video of a four-day deposition during which Crane’s attorneys questioned Peraica. During the deposition, Peraica detailed all of the products he worked with in his job.
Also testifying for the plaintiffs was a historian who stated that companies knew as early as the 1930s how harmful asbestos was. The plaintiff’s lawyers cross-examined a Crane Co. executive who acknowledged that the company knew asbestos exposure could cause illness back in the 1930s but failed to provide warnings to the public.
The lawsuit was initially consolidated with six other asbestos cases before New York Supreme Court Judge Martin Shulman. Kraft said consolidation is a mechanism used in New York’s trial courts to get the sickest plaintiffs into the courtroom sooner. He said the approach can be efficient when multiple cases involve the same expert witnesses and defendants. But the jury must decide each case separately.
Attorney Christopher Meisenkothen, of Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen in New Haven, which specializes in asbestos cases, said Connecticut generally does not consolidate cases. "My firm has tried to consolidate cases on a few occasions and every time our judges have found the facts of the cases to be too disparate to warrant consolidation for trial," said Meisenkothen.
Kraft said six of the cases settled after testimony began, leaving the jury to decide only Peraica’s claim. The trial began Dec. 11, 2012, took a couple weeks off for the holidays, resumed in early January and continued until early March. The jury deliberated roughly a day and a half before awarding $35 million in damages.
"We are very, very pleased with the result," said Kraft, who tried the case with Jerry Kristal and Adam Cooper, also of Weitz & Luxenberg. "But our excitement is tempered knowing this family would’ve foregone this jury trial to have their father back."
Meisenkothen, whose firm also has a New York office, said the large New York verdict may not have a large influence on Connecticut asbestos cases.
"This result is and isn’t significant for the asbestos cases that my firm handles," said Meisenkothen. "It’s significant because it shows that juries can and do award large verdicts for deserving mesothelioma plaintiffs if the facts of the case justify it. It isn’t significant because every case is different and every jurisdiction has slightly different rules and laws that apply."
Meisenkothen noted that Connecticut’s products liability law differs from New York’s. One key difference is how juries can allocate various percentages of blame to different defendants. "New York has a history of large verdicts like this in asbestos cases, which is good for victims of asbestos-related diseases, but it’s very hard to compare across jurisdictions," noted Meisenkothen.•