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State Supreme Court jury in Buffalo awards $1.42 million in mesothelioma case

After nine days of testimony, a state Supreme Court jury in Buffalo found a Chicago-based manufacturer of asbestos gaskets responsible for the wrongful death of a former Cheektowaga man who was exposed to the deadly fiber during his military service.

The jury in Justice Deborah Chimes’ courtroom determined that the John Crane Inc. caused the death of 65-year-old William R. Voelker, who died on Christmas Day in 2013 – just four months after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer.

Although the illness is almost always fatal, the progress of Voelker’s disease was particularly fast and painful, according to his Buffalo attorney, John Comerford.

The jury awarded Voelker’s family $1.42 million, including more than $400,000 toward Voelker’s medical expenses, which included aggressive surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, Comerford said.

John Crane Inc. used asbestos in parts it made for engine spaces on U.S. Navy ships, and Voelker was exposed to the material from 1967 to 1971. He had enlisted following his graduation from John F. Kennedy High School. After his service, he and his family settled in Omaha, Neb., but his father and brother live in Western New York.

The case was filed here because it was originally believed Voelker’s asbestos exposure had come from proximity to his father’s work clothes when he was growing up. His father had worked with asbestos when he was a brick mason at Republic Steel. The cases against other companies named in the original lawsuit were previously resolved, Comerford said.

Comerford’s co-counsel, Jay Stuemke of Dallas, said that John Crane had known of the health dangers of asbestos exposure dating back to the 1940s and concealed them from its customers.

During the trial, Comerford said, the company brought in experts to argue that its asbestos products were “encapsulated” and posed no risk to consumers.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Comerford added that, contrary to what the company claims, there could be “countless exposures” to the asbestos among Navy veterans.

“Anyone who worked in the engine spaces of these ships would be exposed,” he said.