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English Professor, Wife Win Record-Setting Asbestos Lawsuit

Jan. 23, 2014
A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court jury in Cleveland has awarded an English professor and his wife $27.5 million in a case that determined the 40-year-old developed mesothelioma as a result of being exposed to asbestos carried home on his father’s clothing when he was a child.

John Panza Jr., a young man with a wife and small child, is a college professor, a musician and a cancer victim. Diagnosed in 2012 with mesothelioma, Panza has received several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation as well as radical surgery, which resulted in the removal of one of his lungs and part of his diaphragm, in an effort to prolong his life. The only known cause of the often-fatal cancer is exposure to asbestos.

The Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court jury awarded John Panza Jr. $515,000 in economic damages and $12 million in non-economic damages. His wife, Jane Panza, was awarded $15 million for loss of consortium for a total award of $27,515,000. Kelsey-Hayes, the only defendant at trial, was found 60 percent liable.

Panza, an English professor considered to be an expert on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is very active in the arts and music community in Cleveland. In addition to playing in a rock band, Blaka Watra, he helped organize a program that matches musicians with bands and is board president of Heights Arts.

“Just knowing John has made me a better person.  His optimism is contagious,” said one of his attorneys, John Mismas. “In all my years of representing mesothelioma victims, I have never seen a more deserving family.”

Exposure Via Father's Clothing

What is most unusual in this case is that Panza’s exposure occurred as a child, when his father, John Sr., would come home with asbestos dust on this clothing from a day spent working at Eaton Airflex, which manufactured brakes using pads from National Friction Products Corp. John Panza Sr. died of lung cancer in 1994 at the age of 52.

John Sr. worked at Eaton Airflex from 1963 to 1993 in the shipping and receiving department. He was required to deliver materials all over the Eaton Airflex plant, and was a frequent bystander to other employees who drilled and abraded National Friction products, which released asbestos.

The Panzas sued the successor of National Friction Products, the Kelsey-Hayes Co. According to Mismas, by statutory law in Ohio, Eaton Airflex, the employer of John Sr., was immune from suit by John and Jane Panza from the asbestos exposure brought home from the plant. Nonetheless, the jury was allowed to consider whether Eaton was at fault and they determined that Eaton bore 40 percent of the responsibility. Eaton, again pursuant to the law, will not be required to pay any portion of the award and 40 percent of the non-economic award. 

In 2004, the Ohio Legislature passed a law stating that a person suffering an asbestos related disease, such as mesothelioma, could not sue a family member’s employer for asbestos brought home on an employee’s clothes that caused the family member’s mesothelioma. Mismas argued this law was unconstitutional in the Ohio Supreme Court in Boley v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in 2009. However, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the statute, and found that family members' employers are immune from liability. 

The verdict in the Panza case was handed down on Dec. 18, 2013, and is thought to be the largest asbestos verdict ever in the state of Ohio. There will be a second trial in February with a different jury to determine whether punitive damages should be awarded and in what amount. The previous record asbestos verdict in the state is believed to be $6.4 million in 2003 in Blandford v. Garlock Sealing Technologies, and the award was reversed on appeal.

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