John Pilla’s Story

John Pilla’s Story

Because someone was careless with asbestos and didn’t do anything to keep people like my mom safe, I lost her and I lost my older brother both in the same day.

My mom was still alive when she called Weitz & Luxenberg for help. She made the decision to call right after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. She knew what mesothelioma was, she knew how it happens, and she knew what was coming. For those reasons, she also knew that she needed to get legal representation quickly.

Mom never shared with me how she chose Weitz & Luxenberg. It’s possible she saw one of their commercials on TV. Or it could have been that a friend recommended them. Or it might have been that she went looking for law firms and decided Weitz & Luxenberg was the best one.

However it happened, she was very happy with her choice, and so were my brother and I. She was happy with everybody from Weitz & Luxenberg who she had dealings with. She was very pleased, very satisfied. These attorneys give you confidence. They know what they’re doing and how to do it properly. They help you feel that things are going to turn out alright.

Mom was diagnosed with mesothelioma by chance. It was February of ‘09. She had gone out to dinner and something she ate caused her tongue and throat to swell enormously. My brother, Anthony, rushed her to the hospital. They got the swelling under control, but then she had complications that kept her in the hospital. While she was there, she had a heart attack. The doctors were getting ready to clean out a clogged artery and put in a stent when they noticed on the x-ray they had taken of her chest a tumor over her lung. She was shocked. Anthony and I were shocked. None of us could believe it. It was just one bad thing right after another.

The heart attack prevented them from right away treating Mom for mesothelioma. They had to let her get her strength back from the heart attack first. When they were able to start mesothelioma treatment, the first big thing they did was surgery to scrape the tumor from the lining of the lung. The thoracic surgeon said he got almost all of it off, but couldn’t get at the rest of it because of the curvature of the lining. Then they started Mom on chemotherapy. She did fine with the treatments for the next two years. During most of that time she stayed physically strong. Her family doctor, when I’d take her to see him, he’d tell her “you’re doing incredible.” And she was.

Mom developed mesothelioma because she had been exposed to asbestos earlier in her life. She didn’t work directly with asbestos, but there were times when she came into contact with it, like when she worked briefly as a secretary in the office of a company that made asbestos products for the construction industry. Once a week, the office trash would be collected for disposal by someone who’d enter through a door that connected the office to the factory. The trash collector probably had all over his shoes and clothes asbestos dust that he tracked in from the factory floor. That gave my mom what they call “secondary exposure” to asbestos, which can be just as deadly as direct exposure.

Another way she came into contact with asbestos was from construction materials her father brought home from his job at that same factory where she worked as a secretary. My dad worked at that factory too, for 17 years as a machinist. He very probably brought asbestos dust home with him on his clothes and Mom breathed it in when she shook his things out before putting them in the washer.

My dad died in 1997 of lung cancer. But an autopsy that was done on him showed he was in the early stages of mesothelioma. Had he lived a while longer, he probably would have died of that instead.

Before he died, my dad hired a law firm to represent him as an asbestos exposure victim. It wasn’t Weitz & Luxenberg. Weitz & Luxenberg never would have treated my dad the way this other law firm did, like he was just a number.

After Dad passed, my mom took over the lawsuit as the executor of his estate. Mom did not like the way those lawyers handled Dad’s case while he was alive and she didn’t like their handling of it after he was gone. Just trying to get in touch with them to ask questions was frustrating. No open lines of communication. Mom made it clear that she was definitely not calling them to represent her now that she needed legal help for herself.

With Weitz & Luxenberg, there were a number of lawyers working on my mom’s lawsuit. The one we had the most regular contact with was Mary Grabish Gaffney. She was the most caring and extremely professional lawyer that I’ve ever met. Mary came to our house and talked to us. She wanted to see how Mom was doing. It wasn’t lawyer-business-as-usual. Mary’s caring meant so much to my mom. 

Mary steered us through a number of emotionally trying events. The worst was the deposition. It took place in a meeting room at a local hotel and went on for hours. Mary was incredibly kind and patient with Mom, and really helped her be at ease. It was very difficult for me and my brother to sit there, unable to step in to protect my mom, which is just what we instinctively wanted to do because the lawyers for the defendants were very abrupt, very cold, very rude, snide. The defense lawyers had no compassion for my mom. But it wasn’t necessary for us to do anything. Mom had Mary with her. We knew Mom was in good hands. Mary took good care of her.  She did a super job. Mom was really pleased – and that was what was most important to me and my brother. All I could say is Mary is a true professional who left an unforgettable lasting impression on my family. She’s not only a skilled lawyer, but a compassionate person.

It was in September of ’11 that the cancer started seriously weakening Mom. About six months later, they stopped chemotherapy because it was doing more harm than good. At about that time, they arranged for Mom to start hospice care.

And this is the thing. My mom’s illness affected everyone in our family. Anthony and his wife and adult kids, they lived about 15 minutes from my mom’s house, so they could check in on her often. My wife and I and our kids did the same. But during Mom’s final four months, Anthony was there in the house with her around the clock. Except for maybe four brief times, he never left her side. Anthony was so focused on making sure Mom was comfortable, on making sure she got all her medicines exactly when she was supposed to take them, he was so focused on all this that he neglected his own health. It got to the point where he would barely sleep because he was so afraid that something would happen to Mom in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t know about it.

During Mom’s last two weeks, I was there around the clock too and started not sleeping for the exact same reason that Anthony wasn’t sleeping. But this whole ordeal was really hitting Anthony hard – harder than any of us actually knew. The Sunday before Mom passed, Anthony was looking awful. On top of not sleeping he also wasn’t eating. I told his wife she needed to get on him about taking better care of himself. That same day, Anthony gave us a scare when he collapsed and the paramedics had to be called. They wanted him to get in the ambulance and go to the hospital for tests. But he refused. “No, I’ve got to be here for Mom,” he told them. The paramedics made Anthony promise that he’d get help as soon as possible.

Mom died two days later. We were all there when she passed. I told Anthony how proud and thankful I was of what he did for Mom. And then we hugged. A few hours later, we all left the house, except for Anthony. He said he wanted to stay and keep an eye on things. The next morning, Anthony’s wife found him dead of a heart attack on the floor at Mom’s house.

I’m convinced that the only reason my brother died was because our mother had that cancer, and it tore Anthony up inside to see what was happening to her.

It meant a lot to me that the lawyers, when I told them about what had happened to my brother, asked if there was anything they could do to help. I could feel that our loss filled them with sadness. It wasn’t them just saying things to be polite. They genuinely felt pained for us.

My brother and I were both supposed to be the executors for my mom’s estate. But with him gone now, it’s been hard. He’s the older one, so he was always the protector. He’d be taking the lead on all this if he were still alive. I’m doing things as sole executor that are unfamiliar, so I’m depending heavily on Weitz & Luxenberg to guide me along. They’ve been doing a great job helping me know what to do, getting all the paperwork, answering all my questions.

Weitz & Luxenberg also has been very good about giving me information. Once, when I’d lost track of a settlement payment and somehow couldn’t show it had ever even been received, Weitz & Luxenberg was able to tell me right over the phone everything about that payment – when it was made, who it was from, what the amount in question was, the date the documents relating to the settlement were notarized, everything.

Another Weitz & Luxenberg attorney who I have nothing but praise for is Dena Young. I started talking to Dena after my mom passed away. I’m very appreciative of the fact that she was so helpful with any concerns that I had. I feel the same way about Leonard Feldman, David Kaufman, and James Thompson who are three other Weitz & Luxenberg attorneys I’ve been working with. They are thoroughly professional and very helpful.

So, Mom is gone now. But Weitz & Luxenberg hasn’t shown any less interest in her case. That other law firm, they lost interest in my dad’s case right from the get-go, it seemed like. But Weitz & Luxenberg is still fighting to get justice for Mom and for the family. In fact, they’re fighting just as hard now as at the start. That speaks for itself. It’s a good feeling to know that I can count on them.

My mom’s case is probably about halfway through. We’re expecting it to go on for another few years. Already, though, a number of good settlements have come in, and there are probably more ahead.

It’s important to me to keep pressing forward with this lawsuit because it’s what my mom would want me to do. When she got this diagnosis of cancer, she was mad, angry. She wanted justice. She didn’t deserve what happened. And now it’s up to me to continue the fight. That’s just what I intend to do. It’s been a rough couple of years. Through it all, I’m so grateful for Weitz & Luxenberg. None of the progress made would have been possible if not for the hard work of these great lawyers.

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