Justices of the Virginia Supreme Court threw out a sizable mesothelioma verdict after a defense appeal argued the trial judge failed to allow critical evidence that would have lessened the burden of responsibility.
The plaintiff in this case is the widow of a Newport News Shipbuilding employee, who worked at the shipyard from 1956 until 1993 (except for two years in which he served in the Army Reserves). During his first four years on the job, he worked as an apprentice shipfitter, constructing new ships. He returned to that post upon his discharge from the Army Reserves, and at that point was promoted to a supervisory role.
During this time, he was routinely exposed to asbestos in and around his work site, which was not on any Exxon ship. As such, the plaintiff never alleged Exxon was responsible for this asbestos exposure. Asbestos was commonly used aboard civilian and military ships. Consequently, shipbuilders are among those occupations at highest risk for developing mesothelioma as a result of decades of asbestos exposure.
However, in the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, Exxon began regularly bringing their ships to the yard for repairs. The company owned 17 of the roughly 200 ships that were repaired at the yard. These ships were full of asbestos.
Then, three years ago he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He subsequently filed a suit against Exxon under the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA), 33 U.S.C. § 905(b), alleging Exxon had failed to warn or protect him of asbestos dangers. The law allows that ship owners may be held responsible for negligence that results in worker injuries. His case was initially successful, resulting in a $17.5 million verdict.
However, Exxon appealed on four different grounds:
- There was insufficient evidence to prove the company actively controlled his employment or that it failed a duty to step in and protect him when it had actual knowledge that his employer was ignoring an obvious safety risk;
- The evidence was insufficient to show his illness was directly caused by the company’s breach of maritime duty law;
- The trial court judge excluded all evidence that the shipyard knew of the asbestos hazards; and
- The verdict should not have included punitive damages.
The supreme court found that there was sufficient evidence to prove Exxon’s negligence and liability and that punitive damages were appropriate. However, the supreme court found that the circuit court’s decision to bar evidence regarding the shipyard’s knowledge of asbestos dangers was an error. The justices indicated the shipyard’s knowledge of the problem and any steps it took could have limited Exxon’s liability.
Lawyers for the plaintiff have said that they intend to appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court, if necessary.
Help for mesothelioma victims can be found at The Ferraro Law Firm by calling 1-800-275-3332. Offices in Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Virginia Supreme Court tosses $17.5 million asbestos verdict, Jan. 21, 2013, By Peter Dujardin, Hampton Roads Daily Press
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Ruppel v. CBS Corp. – Company Seeks Immunity for Acting Under Federal Authority, Dec. 28, 2013, Mesothelioma Lawyers Blog