Court of Appeals of South Carolina, August 3, 2022
In this asbestos action, decedent Stephen Stewart alleged exposure from working with asbestos-containing dryer felt associated with a paper machine from 1963 until 1981.
Stewart was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma in September 2012. After settling with all other defendants, Stewart proceeded to trial against Scapa Waycross, supplier of the dryer felt to Stewart’s employer. The jury found in Stewart’s favor and awarded damages in the amount of $600,000 for the survival action, and $100,000 for the wrongful death action. Scapa appealed the trial court’s rulings on four grounds, all of which the Court of Appeals affirmed.
First, Scapa set forth that the trial court erred by denying Scapa’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”). Specifically, Scapa argued that plaintiff failed to meet the specific causation standard as his experts opined as to the cumulative dose theory, and “did not provide a specific amount of asbestos Stewart was exposed to from its dryer felts or the threshold exposure to asbestos above which he had an increased risk of developing mesothelioma.” However, the court found that plaintiff proffered sufficient evidence for the jury to determine all three prongs of the medical causation standard were satisfied. With regard to general causation, three experts opined that chrysotile asbestos is a toxin and exposure to same is capable of causing mesothelioma. With regard to specific causation, the court found that the evidence proffered by plaintiff was sufficient in that Stewart regularly handled dryer felt that released large quantities of dust over 18 years. Further, “there is not a known safe level of asbestos exposure . . . and Stewart regularly breathed in dust created from the paper-manufacturing process, which included asbestos fibers from the dryer felts.”
Second, Scapa argued that the court erred by granting Stewart’s motion for a new trial nisi additur. Following the trial, the trial court increased Stewart’s survival damages from $600,000 to $1 million as “both parties stipulated that Stewart was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma and his medical bills associated with treatment were over $241,822.70.” Further, “[h]is rapid deterioration and ultimate death is well documented and uncontroverted in the record.”
Third, Scapa argued that the court erred by failing to reallocate Stewart’s apportionment of settlement proceeds between the survival and wrongful-death actions. Namely, Stewart allocated 20 percent of each settlement to the survival action, and 80 percent to the wrongful-death action. Scapa argued that Stewart’s allocation was not fair nor reasonable and requested reallocation of the settlements to 90 percent to the survival action and 10 percent to the wrongful death action. However, the court noted that “Scapa’s argument stands in contrast to the principle that plaintiffs who settle with defendants gain
control and leverage in relation to nonsettling defendants,” including the “ability to apportion settlement proceeds in a manner most advantageous to [the plaintiff].” As such, the court did not find the allocation “improper, unreasonable under the facts of this case, or unfair simply because it favored Stewart and did not reflect percentages that corresponded with the percentage of each award.”
Finally, Scapa argued that the trial court failed to admit Stewart’s bankruptcy-trust claims since those claims were admissions of a party opponent, as well as under Smith v. Tiffany. The court affirmed the trial court’s decision to not admit the claims as direct evidence of liability as “Stewart’s trust claims are analogous to an offer or promise to accept compensation for his contact with the bankrupt organizations’ asbestos-containing products.” Further, the court rejected Scapa’s argument that the claims would aid in their empty-chair defense as “they would only show that Stewart could have been exposed to their products and that he was seeking compensation from the trusts for his mesothelioma.” As such, “[t]he claims do not in themselves provide a link between Stewart’s mesothelioma and the bankrupt companies’ products.” Thus, the court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
Read the full decision here