Baltimore $5 Million-plus Verdict Overturned for New Trial

MARYLAND — On May 11, 2018, defendants Mack Trucks, Inc. and Ford Motor Co. (collectively as defendants) won a new trial with a decision that overturned a $5 million-plus verdict issued by a Baltimore City jury.

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland found that the trial court provided improper instructions to the jury on the issue of negligence, which was prejudicial to the defendants. Accordingly, the judgments were reversed and remanded for further proceedings on the negligence claims against them not inconsistent with the court’s opinion.

Plaintiff Christopher Coates was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in June 2015 at 67 years old.  He filed suit shortly thereafter on October 6, 2015 in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against 30-plus defendants. The plaintiff alleged claims in negligence and strict liability arising from his exposure to asbestos while employed by a Baltimore based general construction contracting company, where he assisted mechanics with brake replacements.

After a number of other parties were either dismissed or settled with the plaintiff, including one defendant who settled on the eve of trial (settled defendant), this case went to trial on November 10, 2016.  During the trial, the court permitted the plaintiff’s counsel to read into the record an excerpt from the settled defendant’s reply to the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment (The defendants’ motions were both denied).

After approximately three weeks, the case was submitted to the jury on a special verdict form.  The jury returned its verdicts on the same day and found, among other things, that: (i) the plaintiff developed malignant mesothelioma as a result of his exposure to asbestos; (ii) he was exposed to asbestos fibers from products or equipment manufactured, supplied, or sold by the defendants; (iii) that exposure was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff to develop mesothelioma; (iv) the defendants were negligent in failing to warn Plaintiff about the dangers of asbestos; and (v) the plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos-containing products manufactured sold, or supplied by settled defendant was not a substantial contributing factor in causing his mesothelioma. Most notably, the jury acquitted the companies of strict liability. The Baltimore City jury further awarded the plaintiff $72,000 in past medical expenses and $5,000,000 in non-economic damages.

The judgment was entered on December 27, 2016 and the defendants timely filed for JNOV (motion for a new trial) and argued, with respect to their cross-claims against the settled defendant, that the evidence overwhelmingly proved that the plaintiff suffered significant exposure to asbestos from the settled defendant’s product, which was a substantial contributing factor in causing his mesothelioma. In the alternative, the defendants moved for a new trial on their cross-claims on the ground that the court permitted the introduction of “inadmissible hearsay evidence from the settled defendant’s motion for summary judgment brief. Ford also argued that the verdicts in favor of the plaintiff for negligent failure to warn, but against one defendant for strict liability to warn, were irreconcilably inconsistent; and that the court erred by giving certain jury instructions but refusing to give others. The Baltimore City court denied the motions and defendants timely appealed.

On Appeal, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland reviewed and issued a lengthy decision on May 11, 2018 which provided the following holdings:

Jury Instruction – Negligence Issue:

(1) The trial court erred in giving a jury instruction on the negligence issue when it was not supported by the evidence. Here, the court found the verdicts were “illogical”, likely as a result of the improper jury instructions. Accordingly, the court reversed the judgments against Mack and Ford and remanded for further proceedings on the negligence claims against both, not inconsistent with this opinion.

Cross Claim – Settled Defendant Issue:

(2) The trial court erred by admitting into evidence a reply memorandum filed by the settled defendant in support of its motion for summary judgment and the defendants’ cross-claims against were prejudiced as a result. The judgments against the defendants were reversed on their cross-claims against the settled defendant, and remanded for further proceedings on the cross-claims not inconsistent with this opinion.

Read the full decision here.