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Jury Award of $36 Million Affirmed against Contractor

Court: Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

In this asbestos action, plaintiff William Walker alleged asbestos exposure from working as a pipefitter and welder for Level 3 Holdings Inc. f/k/a Peter Kiewit & Sons, Co. (“Level 3”) from 1967 until 1970. During this time, he worked at the Union Carbide Plant, Waterford I, and Waterford II. This case proceeded to trial in May 2022 where the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded damages in the amount of over $36 million dollars. In July 2022, the trial court entered judgment against Level 3 in the amount of more than $19 million dollars.

Level 3 advanced several arguments on appeal. First, the appeals court disagreed with Level 3’s contention “that the jury’s award was improperly based upon “sympathy, emotion, and a desire to punish rather than the law.” The court set forth that “[a]n abuse of discretion occurs if the award is so disproportionate to the injury that it shocks the conscience.” The appeals court considered the totality of the evidence presented in this case, including Walker’s testimony of his imminent death and his multiple medical treatments, including insertion of a PleurX catheter. Walker’s wife testified that they are no longer able to travel to see family and her fear of the future without her husband. Walker’s treating physician (Dr. Satti) and medical expert (Dr. Staggs) also testified as to Walker’s course of treatment and prognosis. The court distinguished this case from the cases with lower awards submitted by Level 3 as they “fail[ed] to compare the awards . . . with the degree and length of suffering of Mr. Walker.” Therefore, the court did “not find that the jury’s award is beyond that which a reasonable trier of fact could asses for the effects of the particular injury to the particular plaintiff such that the jury abused is broad discretion.”

Level 3 also argued that the trial court erred by allowing Walker to pursue a strict liability argument against them as Level 3 was not a premises owner. Under Louisiana’s strict liability law, “it is the defendant’s legal relationship with property containing a defect that gives a rise to the duty.” Further, “custody does not depend upon ownership but instead involves the right of supervision, direction, and control as well as the right to benefit from the thing controlled.” At trial, Walker set forth several exhibits to support his argument that Level 3 and Union Carbide had a contractual relationship. Indeed, the contracts showed that “Level 3, the contractor, supplied materials and products to employees in constructing multiple pumping stations, underground pipes, and plant expansions at the Union Carbide plant.” A construction order also specified for Level 3 to change asbestos gaskets on multiple lines. Thus, while Level 3 was not the premises owner, the court determined “that Level 3 had custody and control of asbestos containing materials when it instructed pipefitters, such as Mr. Walker, to remove insulations from pipes and create hot welds at various worksites.”  

In addition, Level 3 argued that the trial court erred with regard to two evidentiary rulings. Level 3 argued that the trial court improperly admitted deposition testimony from another Level 3 pipefitter at the Waterford sites as Walker’s counsel asserted that the worker was deceased and unavailable for trial. While the worker was not deceased, the court found this error to be harmless as this testimony “merely corroborated” Walker’s live testimony. The court also found that the trial court did not err by submitting National Safety Council documents as an affidavit and deposition testimony of the National Safety Council’s librarian noted the date of the documents and their authenticity. Thus, the appeals court affirmed the jury verdict and judgment. 

Read the full decision here.