Supreme Court of Washington, July 8, 2021
The Asbestos Case Tracker previously reported on a significant verdict against Genuine Parts Company (GPC) and National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA) (Defendants). The defendants appealed the verdict and argued that the trial court erred on several grounds. The Court of Appeals reversed the verdict in part and set aside the verdict. While the Court of Appeals disagreed with the defendants’ argument as to the plaintiff’s counsel’s alleged misconduct, the Court of Appeals agreed that the trial court erred by excluding the defendants’ medical expert. The Court of Appeals further agreed that the jury award was “excessive” and “shocked the conscience.” The plaintiff appealed the Court of Appeals’ decision. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Washington reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the jury’s verdict.
First, the Supreme Court considered the exclusion of the defendants’ expert, Dr. Gary Schuster. Dr. Schuster was prepared to opine that the plaintiff may have been suffering from late-stage cirrhosis, which would have significantly reduced his life expectancy. The Court of Appeals found that Dr. Schuster’s testimony should have been admitted as the plaintiff’s life expectancy was “probative of a central issue in the case.” However, the Supreme Court determined that the trial court’s decision to exclude Dr. Schuster’s testimony as speculative under Washington Court Rule 702 was within the trial court’s discretion. Notably, Dr. Schuster’s opinion that the plaintiff had cirrhosis was based on ascites (fluid buildup) around his liver and spleen. The plaintiff’s doctors attributed the ascites to the mesothelioma. Dr. Schuster also opined that one could not conclusively attribute the ascites to cirrhosis and not mesothelioma. Further, Dr. Schuster’s opinion of the plaintiff’s five-year life expectancy was based on death rate statistics for stage 3 cirrhosis patients. As such, the Supreme Court noted that the trial court’s decision that the probative value of the speculative proposed testimony was outweighed by its potentially prejudicial effect was within their discretion. As such, the Court of Appeals erred by not giving the trial court’s decision sufficient deference.
Second, the Supreme Court agreed with both the trial court’s and the Court of Appeals’ decisions that the plaintiff’s counsel’s alleged misconduct did not warrant a new trial. The Supreme Court determined that the defendants “failed to demonstrate that any alleged misconduct by Plaintiff’s attorney had a clear prejudicial effect on the jury such that [the Defendants] did not receive a fair trial on liability.”
Third, the Supreme Court considered the Court of Appeals’ decision to set aside the jury’s damages award. The Supreme Court determined that the award was supported by substantial evidence, and the award did not “result from passion or prejudice.” Under Washington law, a jury’s damages verdict may be shown to not achieve substantial justice if the verdict is not supported by the admitted evidence (Washington Court Rule 59(a)(7)), or if the jury verdict “might be based on some improper consideration outside the evidence admitted at trial.” (Washington Court Rule 59(a)(5)). Notably, “[t]he size of the verdict alone cannot be proof that it was based on passion, prejudice, or any other improper consideration.” The Supreme Court set forth that the focus of the defendants’ argument was that the jury verdict was the result of passion or prejudice due to the plaintiff’s attorney’s misconduct. However, both the trial court and the Court of Appeals agreed that the allegations of misconduct were not so prejudicial to overturn the jury’s verdict. As such, the Court of Appeals erred by setting aside the verdict “without identifying something in the record demonstrating that the jury rendered an excessive verdict because of passion, prejudice, or any other improper consideration.” The Court of Appeals’ decision to substitute its own judgment for that of the trial court and jury, when the jury verdict was supported by substantial evidence, was erroneous.
Finally, the Supreme Court concluded that the defendants’ application for relief from the judgment under Washington Court Rule 60(b) lacked merit. The defendants contended that the plaintiff’s family and attorney misrepresented the nature of the plaintiff’s relationship with his widow, in contradiction to the evidence presented to the jury. The defendants point to the plaintiff’s family’s probate dispute as the source of this “new” evidence. However, the Supreme Court noted that the defendants monitored the probate proceeding and failed to timely pursue the evidence. Instead, the defendants looked to admit this evidence after the defendants’ arguments regarding liability failed. The Supreme Court also found that the family’s arguments in the probate proceeding were substantially similar to those presented in this matter. As such, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendants’ motion for relief from judgment.
Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision in part and reinstated the jury’s verdict in full.