United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, December 14, 2020
As previously reported by Asbestos Case Tracker here, the decedent, Dr. James L. Gaddy, alleged he was exposed to asbestos while working as a chemical engineer for Ethyl Corp. during the 1950s. Dr. Gaddy was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2018, and subsequently filed suit against Ethyl, among other defendants. Following a trial, a jury found Ethyl partially liable to Dr. Gaddy on theories of strict liability and negligence, and awarded the plaintiffs general damages in the amount of $7,500,000 ($2,500,000 for pain and suffering, $2,500,000 for mental anguish, and $2,500,000 for loss of enjoyment of life). The jury allocated liability to two other entities in addition to Ethyl, and therefore Ethyl’s liability was calculated at one-third of the award. On post-trial motions filed by Ethyl, the district court reduced the total general damages award to $3,000,000, but denied Ethyl’s motion for a new trial and judgment as a matter of law. The court also denied Plaintiffs’ post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law concerning the jury’s allocation of liability. Both Ethyl and the plaintiffs appealed the district court’s rulings to the Fifth Circuit.
The plaintiffs argued that the jury lacked sufficient evidence to reach its conclusions on the issue of liability allocation. However, upon a review of the record, the court held that the plaintiffs had not established that there was no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find as the jury did. There were multiple witnesses that testified, and documentary evidence introduced regarding the liability of the other entities on the verdict sheet, and as such, the court was unable to say that the jury’s inferences from that evidence were unreasonable.
On the issue of strict liability, Ethyl argued that the district court’s denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law was in error, because any asbestos exposure incurred by Dr. Gaddy at Ethyl came from asbestos dust disturbed during the maintenance of sodium cells. Ethyl argued that maintenance is a temporary condition to which strict liability does not attach. The court held that in a long-latency occupational disease case such as this, the law in effect at the time of exposure applies. As such, the applicable law in effect between 1955 and 1959, the time period at issue here, required the plaintiffs to establish three elements for strict liability: “(1) the thing which caused the injury was in the care, custody, and control of the defendant, (2) the thing had a defect which created an unreasonable risk of harm; and (3) the injuries in question were caused by the defect.” On the second element, a defect was defined as “a flaw or condition of relative permanent inherent in the thing as one of its qualities.” Following an analysis of other asbestos cases that involved temporary maintenance activities, the court concluded that the asbestos disturbance here, which involved the tearing out and reconstruction of sodium cells was “almost constant,” occurring on a weekly basis, and “part and parcel” of Ethyl’s facility’s operations. Because the facts of this case were not analogous to those involving temporary maintenance, strict liability was appropriate.
Ethyl also argued that the district court erred in denying its motion for a new trial on the grounds that the jury’s negligence finding was against the great weight of the evidence. The court noted that the stringent abuse of discretion standard on review the district court’s denial of a new trial, requires “a complete absence of evidence to support the verdict,” which was not the case here. The court found that the jury was presented with enough evidence to reach its conclusion, and as such, Ethyl was not entitled to a new trial.
Additionally, Ethyl argued that it was entitled to a new trial because the admission of expert testimony from Susan Raterman, the plaintiffs’ industrial hygiene expert, provided testimony on the “fiber drift” theory, which it argued was nothing more than speculation. The court noted that its review of the admission of expert testimony is one for an abuse of discretion, and even if an abuse of discretion is found, the court may still affirm unless it affected the moving party’s substantial rights. Upon review of the record, the court held that the district court’s Rule 702 analysis was not manifestly erroneous, and even if it was, Ethyl did not establish a violation of its substantial rights.
Finally, as to the remitted general damages award, Ethyl argued that $900,000 was the highest reasonable amount that could be awarded based on the facts and circumstances of the case. The court noted that under the maximum recovery rule, it would not reduce a damages award below the maximum amount that the jury could have awarded. Here, on review of the record, the district court also applied the maximum recovery rule and considered various factually similar cases in detail. The district court found that juries in the relevant jurisdiction typically award between $1,500,000 and $3,000,000 for the type of injuries sustained by the decedent, and conducted a thorough analysis of the facts of this case and the evidence introduced at trial. The court held that the district court was in a “far better position” than it to review the trial testimony and evidence as factors in the damages award, and thus declined to further reduce the verdict.