Case Remanded to Trial Court on Issues of Admission of Alternative Causation Evidence and Jury Instruction

District Court of Appeal of Florida, Third District, February 26, 2020

FLORIDA – An appeal was brought on behalf of the defendant, Union Carbide, after a second jury trial was completed and a jury verdict entered in favor of the plaintiff.  The plaintiff, Paula Font, filed a wrongful death lawsuit alleging her father, Luis Torres, contracted and died of mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos-containing products.

The defendant raised three issues on appeal. First, the defendant claimed the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of causation. This issue on appeal was reviewed de novo. The appellate court denied the defendant’s argument on this issue, finding that Font presented competent and substantial evidence from her expert witnesses that supported a prima facie case. 

Second, the defendant argued that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding seven affidavits signed by Torres prior to his passing. Font argued that the affidavits were inadmissible due to the purported failure by Union Carbide to provide evidence of causation implicating those exposures in Torres’s disease and death. The trial court’s evidentiary rulings are reviewed for an abuse of discretion, while its interpretation of the evidence code is reviewed de novo. Under those standards of review, the appellate court considered if the trial court’s refusal to admit the affidavits was harmless error. Citing R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Mack, in which the First District found that the trial court improperly shifted the burden of proof as to causation by excluding evidence of alternative causation, the appellate court here held that the error to preclude the affidavits was not harmless error, reversed and remanded for a new trial. 92 So. 3d 244, 248 (Fla. 1st DCA 2012).

On the third and final issue for appeal, the appellate court reviewed de novo whether the trial court’s disallowance of a particular term in a jury instruction regarding the learned intermediary defense was reversible error. The defendant argued that the jury instruction regarding Font’s failure to warn claim should have included a clear statement to the jury that a manufacturer’s reasonable reliance on an intermediary manufacturer discharges or fulfills the manufacturer’s duty to warn. The appellate court concluded that the specific language requested by the defendant to be included in the jury instruction would allow “a juror to understand the significance of a ‘reasonable reliance’ finding pertaining to an intermediary manufacturer and Union Carbide’s duty to warn.” The trial court’s exclusion of such a statement was unwarranted. Therefore, the appellate court reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Font filed a cross-appeal of the trial court’s denial of her motions for directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict regarding John Manville’s inclusion on the verdict sheet. The appellate court, on de novo review, found there was competent, substantial evidence of Torres’ use of the John Manville’s product to warrant its inclusion on the verdict sheet.  Accordingly,  Font’s cross appeal was denied.

Read the case decision here.