May 19, 2011

What’s Old is New Again: Problematic Jackpot Asbestos Verdicts

When Smith County, Mississippi Circuit Judge Eddie H. Bowen presided over the largest known single-plaintiff asbestos verdict in U.S. history – a $322 million award against Union Carbide Corp. and Chevron Phillips Chemical Company – he apparently took pains to ensure jurors didn’t have personal or family connections to asbestos exposure.  Unfortunately, he didn’t include himself under his own rule. 

Judge Bowen neglected to disclose that his parents had filed similar lawsuits against Union Carbide seeking $1 million for emotional distress.  They received settlements from the company and some of his father’s claims are still pending.  This would seem to be a clear conflict of interest and violation of Mississippi code of judicial conduct for most others, but not, apparently, for Judge Bowen.

This conflict is only one of a few reasons why the $322 million award, including $300 million in punitive damages, calls into serious question the trial court’s handling of asbestos/mesothelioma cases. 
First, the plaintiff stipulated before the trial that he had no medical expenses or lost earning capacity related to the allegations in his asbestos lawsuit.  He sought only $45,000 for future medical monitoring.  He must have been pleasantly surprised when a court awarded him $321,955,000 more.

Second, the plaintiff’s own doctors testified that he didn’t have the disease he alleged was caused by the defendants.  His doctors, including two pulmonologists and six radiologists, as well as an independent examiner, all testified at the trial that he did NOT have asbestosis, which the plaintiff claimed he came down with after exposure to the asbestos mineral in drilling mud.

Though Judge Bowen paid lip service to trying to field an impartial jury, that was really difficult in Smith County, where 987 residents – or one out of every six households – have filed asbestos claims.  Still, Judge Bowen denied the defendants’ request for a change of venue.

This case comes on the heels of other notable asbestos awards, such as a $90 million verdict in Illinois against defendants who had no connection at all to the plaintiff but were deemed responsible for his exposure to asbestos. 

These cases and others like them show that huge asbestos verdicts are not just a thing of the past, but a growing, dangerous trend.  They provide more vivid examples of the need to institute and enforce legal reforms to stop abusive practices. 

Questionable judicial practices and runaway jury awards do nothing more than ensure unfair and unpredictable results, bankrupt businesses, hurt job growth, and distort justice.  In light of the unprecedented $322 million award and the number of troubling issues surrounding this case, we would expect Mississippi’s appellate courts to review the verdict, the conduct of the trial, and applicable law.

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