Louisiana District Court Issues Remittitur Decision in Asbestos Case

Posted by

U.S. District Court E.D. of Louisiana, March 4, 2020

LOUISIANA – The decedent, James Leoma Gaddy, filed a petition for damages against various defendants on Sept. 21, 2018 in the Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans. It is alleged that the decedent was exposed to asbestos while working at International Paper from 1948 to 1950 and 1952, and while working as a chemical engineer at Ethyl Corporation’s facility from 1955 to 1960. The decedent filed suit against a number of defendants, including Taylor-Seidenbach, which is domiciled in Louisiana. Gaddy was an Arkansas resident. After Gaddy passed away in January 2018, his children were substituted as the plaintiffs.

On Sept. 25, 2019, the plaintiffs informed Ethyl that they had reached a settlement agreement with Taylor-Seidenbach, the only remaining Louisiana defendant in the matter. The defendant, Ethyl Corporation filed a notice of removal on diversity jurisdiction grounds, as the plaintiffs are citizens of Arkansas and Ethyl Corporation is a citizen of Virginia. The plaintiff filed an emergency motion to remand, which the court denied. Trial began on Nov. 4, 2019. Following the close of evidence, both parties made Rule 50 motions for judgment as a matter of law regarding certain aspects of the case. Both motions were denied. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs finding Ethyl Corporation both negligent and strictly liable, and awarding plaintiffs $7.5 million in general damages. The jury also awarded $250,661.45 in medical expenses. The jury also found International Paper negligent and strictly liable, and Owens-Illinois liable as a manufacturer of an unreasonably dangerous product.

The defendant, Ethyl, timely filed a motion for a new trial or, alternatively, for remittitur. Ethyl argue it is entitled to a new trial for the following four reasons:

1. The jury verdict is against the great weight of the evidence

2. The court committed legal error in permitting inadmissible expert testimony

3. The jury verdict followed improper conduct by the jury

4. The amount of the verdict is so excessive as to shock the conscience.

The plaintiff opposition the motion.

The court noted that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 provides that the court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues and to any party as follows: after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court. Furthermore, a new trial may be granted if the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the damages awarded are excessive, the trial was unfair, or prejudicial error was committed in its course. As this matter was before the court on diversity jurisdiction, the new trial and remittitur standards of Louisiana law were applicable. Under Louisiana law, a new trial shall be granted when the verdict or judgement appears clearly contrary to the law and evidence. Furthermore, the Louisiana Supreme Court has noted that the discretionary power to grant a new trial must be exercised with considerable caution, that is, fact finding is the province of the jury, and the trial court must not overstep its duty in overseeing the administration of justice and unnecessarily usurp the jury’s responsibility. Turning to this issue, the court noted that considering all of the testimony and evidence presented at trial considering all of the testimony and evidence presented at trial with respect to negligence, that the jury’s verdict does not lack a legally sufficient evidentiary basis. The court noted that the jury simply believed the plaintiffs’ version of the facts and rejected the defendant’s version. The court further concluded that not one of the jury’s findings with respect to negligence was against the weight of the evidence.

Turning to the issue regarding the judgment as a matter of law, the court indicated that judgment as a matter of law should only be granted when the evidence at trial points so strongly and overwhelming in the movant’s favor that reasonable jurors could not reach a contrary conclusion. The court ruled that despite the defendant’s contention, there was no legal error in allowing the plaintiff’s expert, Susan Raterman, to testify. Furthermore, the court found the defendant’s argument regarding a juror’s instances of sleeping during trial to be unavailing. The court addressed this issue by taking frequent breaks and providing coffee. Further, the entire jury engaged in a thoughtful deliberation that lasted several hours.

Lastly, the court concluded that the jury’s general damage award of $7.5 million was excessive. Most survival actions involving mesothelioma claims have generated recoveries ranging from $1.5 million to $3 million. After reviewing all of the evidence in the record and recalling the testimony of the witnesses, the court, applying the maximum recovery rule, concluded that an appropriate award in this case was $3 million in general damages in addition to medical expenses of $250,661.45, for a total award of $3,250,661.45. In the event the plaintiffs refuse to remit, the court will order a new trial.

Read the case decision here.