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UA Law alum wins largest ever Ohio asbestos case

Legal News Reporter

Published: February 19, 2014

John Mismas, a former teamster who graduated from The University of Akron School of Law in 2003, recently won the largest jury award for an asbestos case in Ohio history, totaling $27.5 million.

The case, John Panza, v. Borgwarner Morse Tech Inc., The “et. al.” comprised 14 total defendants, although only one of them, the Kelsey-Hayes Company (a subsidiary of TRW), lost at trial.

The trial lasted 11 days; the jury was out for four-and-a-half hours.

Defendant’s counsel was BakerHostettler, which utilized attorneys from both their Cleveland and Denver offices. The firm has not yet responded to a request for a comment on the case.

Visiting Judge Harry Hanna, who presides over asbestos cases in Cuyahoga County, was the judge. Asbestos judges are appointed by the Ohio Supreme Court as visiting judges, said Mismas.

John Panza is an English professor at Tri-C, and the drummer for the Cleveland alt-rock trio Blaka Watra. He suffers from mesothelioma, a rare and highly aggressive form of cancer most commonly caused by exposure to asbestos.

Mismas said Panza has already lost one lung to the disease, and his outlook is bleak.

“Mesothelioma is always fatal,” said Mismas, who has dedicated much of his legal career to the plaintiff’s side of asbestos cases.

Panza never worked in asbestos, but he had been exposed to it through his father’s clothing. His father worked at Eaton Airflex Brake Company. Eaton was immune from this law suit under Ohio law; Kelsey-Hayes is liable for the entire amount.

Panza was 40 years old when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012. His father had died of lung cancer in 1994 at the age of 52, having worked at Eaton Airflex for over 30 years.

The defendant Kelsey-Hayes Co. was in the case as the successor to National Friction Products, which was the last remaining defendant at the time of the verdict.

The jury award was broken down into three components: Panza received $515,000 in economic damages and $12 million in non-economic damages. Panza’s wife, co-plaintiff Jane Panza, was awarded $15 million for loss of consortium.

Mismas said that the complaint had asked for $25 million, but that the jury had asked during their deliberations if they could award more than the amount prayed for in the complaint.

He also said that the way that the Panzas have handled their situation, “has made me a better person. He is a very optimistic guy.” Panza continues to teach and play through his disease, and Mismas said he found himself attending Blaka Watra shows. The attorney often bonds with his asbestos clients, he said.

Second-hand asbestos cases are very challenging, said Mismas. “I knew that it would be a tough case,” he said. “One of the toughest cases to try.”

At trial, Mismas needed to convince the court to find some difficult, and some unique, procedural holdings. This was the first living mesothelioma case that he had seen, he said, to have a directed verdict to exceed Ohio’s damage caps

“It is easier to find an exception to the damage caps rule in cases where the plaintiff is deceased,” said Mismas.

Ohio’s damage caps are under R.C. 2315.08, with the exceptions to those caps under section (B) of that rule. Mismas brought the motion for a directed verdict under (B)(3)(a), the exception for “permanent and substantial physical deformity.”

Panza had had a lung removed and had undergone other radical surgery, as well as radiation, to the point that his body was covered with scars. Mismas, in arguing for the directed verdict, showed the court photos of him, but also had Panza show the courtroom those scars, and the judge granted the directed verdict.

People who are damaged by asbestos are almost always, “working class folks,” Mismas said.

Dedicated to this cause, he helps other asbestos lawyers out around the country and lectures on the topic, including lecturing at Akron Law, his alma mater. He has also, he said, attended numerous funerals of asbestos victims, where he is occasionally a pallbearer.

Although this was a very large verdict, Mismas said that he is in this field to help people, and that, “the money is just a bonus.”