English Professor Wins $27.5 Million in Asbestos-Related Cancer Suit

After being diagnosed in 2012 with a rare, fatal form of lung cancer called mesothelioma, John Panza, Jr. continues to lead an active life, teaching college English and playing the drums. Unfortunately, that will change.

The $27.5 million verdict is believed to be the largest of its kind in Ohio. Panza, 40, of Cleveland Heights, teaches English at Cuyahoga Community College. He claims that he acquired the cancer after years of second-hand exposure to clothing worn by his father who picked up asbestos dust at his job at the Eaton Airflex brake company. The plant where his father worked from 1963 to 1993, owned by the former National Friction Products Corp., manufactured brake pads, which contained asbestos. Panza’s father regularly came home covered in the cancer-causing material after working in the receiving and shipping department.

Panza’s father, John Sr, died of lung cancer in 1994 at the age of 52. He worked at Airflex for 31 years, previously serving as the company’s union president.

John and Jane Panza sued the Kelsey-Hayes Co., the Michigan-based successor to National Friction Products, and the only remaining defendant at the time of the verdict, which was handed down on December 18th.

Visiting Judge Harry Hanna presided over the 11-day trial, acknowledging that the verdict took him completely by surprise.

According to the breakdown of the verdict, the jury awarded John Panza $515,000 in economic damages and $12 million in non-economic damages. The jury awarded his 37-year-old wife, $15 million for her loss of consortium claim, or the deprivation of the benefits of a family relationship due to her husband’s disease.

The eight-member jury attributed 60 percent of the liability to Kelsey-Hayes, finding that the company’s brake products were defective and primarily responsible for causing Panza’s cancer.

The jury placed 40 percent of the liability on Eaton Airflex, which was immune to the lawsuit under Ohio law. Kelsey-Hayes is liable for the entire damages, and is expected to appeal the verdict. There will be a second trial at a later date, set by the court, with a different jury, to determine whether punitive damages should be awarded and for what amount.

Judge Hanna said the testimony was emotional when the Panzas testified. The couple went to high school together in Parma and attended college together at John Carroll University, where they both obtained Master’s degrees, Hanna said. They are the parents of a 6-year-old daughter.

Panza underwent four separate surgeries just prior to the start of the trial, almost losing his life. His right lung was removed. The prognosis is that with this invasive cancer, it is almost certain to spread to his left lung and eventually take his life.

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