Smoker dies of lung cancer, family wins $12.5M after blaming asbestos

The family of a man who claimed his lung-cancer death was caused by asbestos exposure was awarded $12.5 million by a Manhattan jury — despite the fact that he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.

The case, handled by the former law firm of disgraced ex-state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, involved New Jersey resident George Cooney.

Cooney worked in Queens from 1969 to 1980, repairing Caterpillar forklifts which were manufactured with asbestos.

The mechanic, who died in 2014 at age 67, had smoked cigarettes since he was a teen.

Weitz & Luxenberg lawyer Danny Kraft Jr. secured the massive Manhattan Supreme Court award by presenting a 1968 report that showed smokers who are exposed to asbestos have a much greater risk of succumbing to lung cancer than nonsmokers.

Caterpillar didn’t put warning labels on its equipment until 54 years after it learned about the dangers related to asbestos, Kraft told the jury.

“Mr. Cooney was addicted to smoking cigarettes. He could not stop despite trying to for years,” Kraft said in a statement.

“Caterpillar, on the other hand, could have stopped selling products containing asbestos at any time, but chose not to.

“At the very least, they could have warned about the hazards of asbestos on their products.

“It was abundantly clear throughout this trial that Caterpillar failed mechanics like Mr. Cooney.”

The Post reported last year that Weitz lawyers got special treatment at Manhattan Supreme Court because of their association with Silver. The court has since undergone reforms to assure fairness.

Silver was convicted in November 2015, in part for pocketing $3 million in legal fees from Weitz in exchange for recruiting asbestos patients from a doctor, who got $500,000 in taxpayer-funded research grants in return.

In the Cooney case, the six-person jury found on Oct. 28 that the victim’s lung cancer was caused both by asbestos and his cigarette smoking, according to a copy of the verdict form.

The forklifts that Cooney worked on for the Hyster Co. in Maspeth contained brakes, clutches and engine gaskets that contained asbestos.

The jury determined that Caterpillar was “negligent” for making asbestos-laden products and not warning customers about their health hazards.

That negligence was a “substantial factor” in Cooney’s death, the jury found.

But the panel also said that his death was attributable to the cancer, concluding that he was 45 percent at fault while Caterpillar was 55 percent at fault.

Hunter Shkolnik, an asbestos lawyer who was not involved in the case, said the fault breakdown likely means that Caterpillar won’t have to pay the full $12.5 million.

Members of Cooney’s family, who are set to inherit the jury award, did not return calls seeking comment.

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