[co-author: Michael Hopkins]
The Illinois Supreme Court recently reversed and remanded the appellate court’s ruling in Jones v. Pneumo Abex LLC, Nos. 123895, 124002 cons. (Ill. 2019), holding the Fifth District failed to follow long-standing Illinois precedent rejecting identical civil conspiracy claims. The Supreme Court held the appellate court erred by distinguishing the present case, decided on summary judgment, from McClure v. Owens Corning Fiberglas Corp., 188 Ill. 2d 102 (1999), a case decided on a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The Court stated that, as under the current facts, “[i]f all relevant evidence is before the court and upon such evidence there would be nothing left to go to a jury so that the court would be required to enter a directed verdict, denying summary judgment to permit further proceedings to take place would serve no purpose.”
The case, filed by John and Deborah Jones in February 2013, alleged John was diagnosed with lung cancer due to workplace asbestos exposure in the 1960s and 1970s while working with Pneumo-Abex (“Abex”) and Owens-Illinois (“Owens”) products. In their complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that Owens and Abex conspired to suppress information regarding the dangers of asbestos and falsely represented that exposure to asbestos-containing products was non-toxic. Plaintiffs further alleged that Owens and Abex conspired to withhold information regarding the harmful effects of asbestos from exposed individuals. Abex filed a motion for summary judgment citing Rodarmel, Menssen, Gillenwater, where identical civil conspiracy claims were dismissed. Owens also moved for summary judgment citing the same cases, arguing that numerous Illinois Circuit Courts had granted Owens-Illinois summary judgment “more than 60 times in cases involving precisely the same civil conspiracy claim asserted here.” The circuit court granted each parties’ motion for summary judgment.
On appeal, the Fifth District appellate court reversed and remanded, holding at that stage of the proceedings, “there are no definitive answers to the disputed questions of fact presented by the plaintiff regarding the existence of the conspiracy they claimed, and that summary judgment was therefore inappropriate.” In its opinion, the Fifth District failed to address all the cases cited by Owens and Abex and gave short shrift to the cases it did. Additionally, shortly before the court issued its opinion in August 2018, the Fourth District ruled in favor of Abex and Owens in a similar civil conspiracy case.
In ruling on the consolidated appeal, the Supreme Court noted the issue of whether Abex or Owens engaged in a civil conspiracy to conceal the dangers of asbestos has been frequently litigated in Illinois and reviewing courts “have consistently concluded that these companies could not be held liable for civil conspiracy as a matter of law and entered judgment notwithstanding the verdicts in their favor.” The Supreme Court held the Fifth District failed to meaningfully evaluate the factual similarities between the present case and Illinois precedent governing civil conspiracy claims (Rodarmel, Menssen, and Gillenwater), and erroneously placed undue weight on the types of motion involved, which was inconsequential. The case was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
This decision allows alleged asbestos manufacturers to breathe a sigh of relief, as the Illinois Supreme Court has further solidified long-standing case law rejecting civil conspiracy claims against them.