In the 1950s, Johnny Lattner was the pride of Oak Park, Illinois. A standout football player at Fenwick High School, he went on to win the coveted Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame in 1953. The first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers played one season in the NFL before joining the Air Force, where he injured his knee in a military football game. For the locals at the time, there wasn’t a bigger star than Johnny Lattner. A kid from Chicago’s West Side, Lattner represented everything to which young people could relate and aspire. To his fellow members of Fenwick’s Class of 1950, and to legions of Fenwick and Notre Dame alums, Johnny Lattner is a legend.
In 2014, the Lattner family received the devastating news that Johnny had contracted mesothelioma after working as an asbestos insulator in Chicago during summers while a student at Notre Dame. For John Cooney, himself a Fenwick alum, this news was both devastating and very personal.
“Your hero when you are a kid becomes a hero for life,” Cooney said. “The fact that Johnny Lattner had mesothelioma and was going to die, and did die, was one of the most unfair things imaginable.”
Growing Up Around the Law
This sense of right and wrong was instilled in Cooney at an early age. His father, Robert Cooney, Sr. was a war hero, serving in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II before using the G.I. bill to attend Loyola Law School. He got a job out of law school in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, where he tried several seminal cases. He left the public sector in 1958 to co-found his own personal injury firm. He was renowned in the legal community until his death in 1995.
John Cooney graduated from Fenwick High School and headed to Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1976. Though not particularly interested in politics, Cooney found himself in working on the Hill during the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. This experience fomented an interest in the law.
Cooney came back home to Chicago to attend law school at Loyola University. Like his father before him and his son after him, his first job out of school was as a Cook County State’s Attorney, where he tried cases in the felony trial division.
“It was a good place to learn trial work because I got a lot of responsibility early,” Cooney said. “Back in those days, I was an assistant state’s attorney and my brother (Robert Cooney, Jr.) was on the Murder Task Force of the Public Defender’s office, so we were in court every day, all the time.”
In 1985, Cooney joined his father’s law firm, a generalized personal injury practice with an emphasis on construction accidents and product liability cases.
“Frankly, the cases were different in those days,” John Cooney said. “We’d see a lot of people pulled into machines at work, airline crashes, people hurt in train derailments, car accidents, some medical negligence, but most of the cases were cases where an individual got hurt. You would litigate the case and then when that case was finished, it wouldn't really have any relevance to the next case. They were all very different and very unique cases.”
First Wave of Asbestos Cases Were Complicated and Expensive
It was when he was in law school, as his father began to work on asbestos cases, that Cooney first became aware of the labyrinthine nature of this litigation. Back then, in the mid-70s, there were only a handful of attorneys working on asbestos cases; most were still trying traditional personal injury cases. Asbestos cases were complicated, protracted, and expensive to try. Defendants like Johns Manville, Owens Corning, Pittsburgh Corning, General Electric, and Westinghouse had teams of defense attorneys who were proficient in overwhelming plaintiff teams with paper.
The tide turned with the discovery of documents which revealed the complicity of companies in what Cooney describes as an “outrageous occupational disaster.” With this discovery, attorneys around the country began to have some success in trying asbestos cases.
Among the most classic and prominent examples were the Sumner Simpson Papers, a collection of documents clearly and completely implicating full knowledge of these transgressions.
“They knew it was dangerous and decided to sell it anyway,” Cooney said. “And when that kind of document gets out, even the most conservative finder of fact, whether it’s a judge or a jury, is not happy. The defense always claimed, ‘We didn’t know either, this is all a big surprise to us.’ When the lie was put to that, verdicts started to come in adversely to a lot of these companies.”
The average American may think that the dangers from asbestos are long over, and that the use of asbestos was stopped as soon as the dangers were exposed by OSHA in 1972. The fact is that many companies were not entirely honest about when they stopped using it; some even expanding their use. Asbestos was no longer used in thermal insulation by the mid-80s, but many friction defendants used it into the 2000s, and some still use it. Once companies stopped using asbestos, the dangerous material did not evaporate or disappear. To this day, big industrial plants have an endless flow of asbestos fibers, most of them invisible, throughout their facilities.
The biggest factor in the problems relating the litigation of asbestos cases is the latency period for this disease.
“If people were just breathing the stuff and dropping dead the next day, even the coldest-hearted alive would have stopped it,” Cooney said.
“You usually don't get mesothelioma for at least 20 years, and you can get it for as long as you live. We see people all the time who get it 40 years, 50 years after they are exposed to it. In fact, it is a disease of the elderly. The average age of mesothelioma victims is 74 years old. As our population ages and you live longer, more people will get this disease and it’s a cruel end to the life of hardworking men and women.
“Think about the average person who’s not an asbestos insulator. One day they’re short of breath, they go in and see their physician. The guy does a biopsy and tells him he has mesothelioma. In some cases, that’s the first time they’ve ever heard of the word.”
A complication around the liability of these large companies is that the individuals who made the original decisions to callously expose thousands to asbestos are all dead or very old. It is difficult or impossible to hold these individuals responsible for their actions. But their corporations thrive, and thus cannot escape their liability, though not for lack of trying. While Cooney understands that it can be frustrating for the current management of these companies to address legacy liabilities, the alternative of releasing them from their responsibilities is unacceptable.
“They certainly kept all the money,” said Cooney. “They certainly kept all profits and grew their companies to where they are now able to address their legacy liabilities. This seems only fair.”
Passion for Representing Victims of Negligence
Cooney has a passion for representing victims suffering as the result of the negligence of others. He fights against the notion that victims of personal injury accidents and the families of mesothelioma victims are simply interested in money.
“When you’re a state’s attorney, people think you are just trying to punish people,” he said. “You work with the wife of the guy who got shot in the forehead at the dime store, or you work with the girl who was assaulted. These aren’t people who wanted to be victims. By the same token, the men and women who have been injured or killed by workplace exposure to asbestos never wanted to be the victims of this misconduct. These are fairness things.”
Cooney has heard what people say about lawyers all his life, and he has seen endless examples of misrepresentations in the entertainment industry. From movies to television shows, he has not been impressed overall with the accuracy in presenting the industry he’s been a part of his whole life.
“Movies get almost everything wrong,” he said, while conceding The Verdict and Runaway Jury are a couple of the films that do seem to represent the legal world realistically. He is even less impressed with TV presentations of the law. “First of all, the time frames are preposterous,” he said. “Within 90 minutes or half an hour or 60 minutes, we’ve got the guy, we’ve arrested him, we’ve figured out all the evidence, we’ve tried him, we’ve convicted him and we’re on appeal. In any timeframe, that can’t happen. Then there is the preposterous, like Perry Mason, where everyone admits their fault on the stand.
Though he feels television representations have had a palpable negative impact on the trying of important, substantial cases, Cooney is still quick to defend the American legal system overall.
“It still is, with all its warts, the best alternative," he said. "The American civil jury system provides a fair and open process where citizens can seek justice and on a level playing field."
It is that sense of fairness and transparency in the administration of justice that is at the core of Cooney’s passion for prosecuting cases for victims of personal injury caused by the negligence of others. He has genuine empathy for the victims and their families. Hearing the stories and meeting the people affected over the years has made his profession personal to him.
“It does get personal,” he said. “In most cases, these guys are from the greatest generation. These are not the complainers, these are not people who ever wanted to be in litigation. These are pipe-fitters, HVAC guys, insulators, electricians who went to work, raised families, got their kids to go to college. All these guys did was get up in the morning, go to work, and breathe. They built America, they won the war, they did it all, and now they have cancer for no reason. So, that’s personal.”
His family background and all that he has seen in his career has given Cooney a unique perspective, enabling him to look at situations and circumstances from all sides, including those fighting against him and his clients seeking compensation from those accused of negligence.
“You’ve got to look at everything through the other guy’s eyes,” he said. “That defense attorney is representing a company that’s paying him, that he’s got a certain amount of loyalty to. I don’t mind somebody defending their company, and in fact, how they defend that company is their call. But it can get very contentious between people. We try to avoid conduct that is not civil and professional.
“I try to remind people on my side of the aisle, who can be very strident, that this lawyer didn’t kill anybody. He’s trying to make the best of a bad situation. These guys in charge now were dealt a difficult hand. Our job is to make sure they don’t escape from that hand.
“If you don’t treat the other side, your opponent, your adversary, like a gentleman, don’t expect him to treat you like a gentleman. the most important person in the case is always the client.”
It is a sentiment that would make All-American Johnny Lattner proud.