Jury Verdict Found Consistent as Exposure May Not Be Substantial Contributing Factor of Disease

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Supreme Court of Louisiana, January 12, 2021

The plaintiffs sued various defendants alleging that the decedent (Bagwell) developed mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure which resulted in his death. At trial, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs against the decedent’s employer, RMC, finding it 75 percent at fault. CAPCO, a non-party defendant, was found 25 percent at fault. The jury assigned no fault to Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and Montello, Inc., the manufacturer and the distributor of asbestos-containing products. The trial court denied the plaintiffs’ motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and new trial.

The court of appeals initially affirmed relative to liability but reversed on rehearing and granted a new trial, finding the jury verdict internally inconsistent. In response to Interrogatory 1 on the jury verdict form, the jury found the decedent “contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos from the products/activities” of CAPCO and RMC, and “that such exposure was a substantial contributing cause of his mesothelioma.” The jury specifically rejected liability on the part of UCC and Montello in response to this inquiry. However, in later interrogatories, RMC and CAPCO were the only companies found to have caused Bagwell’s injury under a negligence theory, and only CAPCO was found liable under a strict products liability theory. The plaintiffs argued the jury reached a logically impossible result as it found RMC at fault without assigning fault to the manufacturers and distributors of the asbestos-containing products.

The court now reversed the grant of a new trial and reinstate the jury’s verdict, finding the jury’s answers were not irreconcilable. The court of appeal reasoned that Interrogatory 1 only contemplated the source of the decedent’s exposure, not causation. In narrowly interpreting it as such, the court of appeal found the jury could not have logically held RMC liable for exposing the decedent to the asbestos-containing products without also assigning fault to UCC and Montello, whose products were allegedly the source of the exposure.

However, this court notes that this interpretation fails to properly consider the second question posed in Interrogatory 1: whether the exposure was a “substantial contributing cause” of the decedent’s disease. The jury could have reasonably found that even if UCC and Montello’s products were the source of exposure, on which we express no opinion, 1 the products were not unreasonably dangerous and did not cause the decedent’s mesothelioma. The jury instructions even provided, “not every asbestos exposure is a substantial contributing factor.” Evidence was presented at trial that the manufacturers’ packaging, labeling, and handling was compliant with federal standards. Thus, the jury could have rationally concluded the decedent’s injury was caused only by RMC’s mishandling of the products, not the products themselves.

Therefore, the court reversed the court of appeal’s opinion on rehearing.