Illinois Supreme Court Reverses Nolan v. Weil-McLain


April 16, 2009

The Illinois Supreme Court today issued its opinion in the matter of Nolan v. Weil-McLain, perhaps the most significant decision in Illinois asbestos litigation history. Weil-McLain challenged Illinois' so-called "Lipke rule," which had long been interpreted to preclude asbestos defendants from offering evidence at trial of a plaintiff's exposures to other products, regardless of the defendant's purpose. In a 5-1 opinion written by Justice Freeman, the Illinois Supreme Court limited the Lipke case to its facts and specifically overruled those cases (Kochan and Spain) that expanded the "Lipke rule" to prevent a defendant at trial from introducing evidence of other exposures to advance a causation defense.

The court relied heavily on its prior opinions in Thacker and Leonardi. It rejected the plaintiff's argument that satisfying the Thacker "frequency, regularity and proximity" standard establishes legal causation and a presumption that the defendant at trial is a proximate cause of a plaintiff's asbestos injury. Further, the court stated that Leonardi, a non-asbestos case, overruled those portions of Kochan and Spain that hold that evidence of other exposures is irrelevant in an asbestos case.

The court's holding is summarized by the following language from the opinion:

"As observed by the dissenting justice below, the appellate court's erroneous interpretation of Lipke, Thacker and Leonardi in its rulings in Kochan and Spain left Illinois standing alone in excluding evidence of other asbestos exposures, and conflicted with our well-settled rules of tort law that the plaintiff exclusively bears the burden of proof to establish the element of causation through competent evidence, and that a defendant has the right to rebut such evidence and to also establish that the conduct of another causative factor is the sole proximate cause of the injury. We hold that the circuit court erred by relying on the appellate court's erroneous – and now overruled – decisions to prevent defendant from presenting evidence of decedent's other asbestos exposures in support of its sole proximate cause defense."

Edward J. McCambridge and Cameron D. Turner, shareholders at Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney, are national counsel for Weil-McLain. They served as Weil-McLain's trial counsel in the Nolan matter and co-counsel throughout the appeal.

"This is the most significant decision in the history of Illinois asbestos litigation," says Mr. McCambridge. "It brings Illinois in line with the rest of the country as to the defendant's ability to challenge causation. The Lipke rule created artificial trials where the jury was kept in the dark regarding all of the plaintiff's exposure. Now the playing field is level and defendants can introduce evidence to show that they are not the proximate cause of the plaintiff's disease. The nature of asbestos trials in Illinois will change dramatically based on the Supreme Court's ruling."

To view the Nolan v. Weil-McLain decision, please click here.

Contact Information

Edward J. McCambridge
Sears Tower, 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 5500
Chicago, IL 60606

Cameron D. Turner
Sears Tower, 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 5500
Chicago, IL 60606