Five Million Dollar Mesothelioma Punitive Damages Award Upheld U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, March 29, 2018
ARIZONA — Plaintiff Goerge Coulbourn was a machinist for the United States Navy from 1959 to 1966, during which time he worked with several products sold by defendant Crane Company that contained “significant amounts of asbestos.” The plaintiff sued Crane, alleging, amongst other things, that Crane’s products were defective in failing to warn of the dangers that asbestos posed. The plaintiff died in August 2013, and his wife, Sandra Coulbourn, filed an amended complaint on behalf of herself and her family, asserting a claim for wrongful death based upon the same allegations of defect.
Following trial, a jury awarded plaintiffs a total of $9 million in compensatory damages, with Crane bearing responsibility for 20 percent, or $1.8 million, and an additional $5 million in punitive damages. Crane moved for judgment as a matter of law both before and after the verdict, and the district court denied both motions. Crane appealed.
Crane first argued that the plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence that its products were the “but for” causes of Coulborn’s death because he worked with so many other products from other companies that also contained asbestos. The Appeals Court held that “given the evidence of Coulborn’s frequent, direct contact with asbestos dust from Crane products during a substantial period, a reasonable juror could find that Crane products were more likely than not independently sufficient to cause his mesothelioma, and were thus a substantial factor in causing plaintiffs’ injuries.”
Crane next argued that there was insufficient evidence for the plaintiffs’ failure-to-warn theory to go to a jury because the plaintiffs put forward “no evidence that Coulborn would have heeded a warning had Crane provided one.” The Appeals Court stated that there was expert testimony and other evidence before the jury that “asbestos causes mesothelioma – a painful, fatal disease. A jury could reasonably infer from this evidence that Coulbourn would have heeded an adequate warning of this serious danger.”
Finally, Crane appealed the award of punitive damages, both generally and in size. The Appeals Court held that the punitive damages award was justified because a jury could reasonably infer from the evidence that Crane knew that the normal use of its gaskets would cause them to stick to joints such that their inevitable removal would require scraping and so expose workers to potentially fatal asbestos dust. The Appeals Court further held that the 2.8 to 1 ratio of punitive to compensatory damages was constitutionally permissible.
Ultimately, the Appeals Court denied Crane’s motion, and affirmed the district court’s decision.