Plaintiff’s Verdict Reversed Based on Jury Charge Errors on Failure to Warn and Medical Causation

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Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, May 26, 2021

In this case, the plaintiff filed suit as personal administer of her husband’s estate against defendant Union Carbide. The jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor on the claims of strict liability and negligent failure to warn. Union Carbide appealed, arguing that a new trial should be granted due to two errors in the jury instructions: (1) the instruction on failure to warn and (2) the instruction on medical causation. The court agreed and reversed the lower decision, vacated the judgement, and remanded the case for a new trial.

With respect to the first issue, a manufacturer may discharge their duty to warn if it was reasonable under the circumstances to rely on the employer to convey the warning to the employee. This question of reasonableness is for the jury to resolve by looking at: (1) the nature of the safety training provided by the manufacturer and the employer, (2) whether it was reasonable for the manufacturer to believe that the employer would relay warnings to the employees, and (3) if warning attempts were sufficiently calculated to reach the employee. Union Carbide argued that it was improper for the lower court to instruct that jury to ignore warnings given to the employer by Union Carbide when determining if the injured employee received adequate warning. This court agreed, finding that the jury should have been instructed to look at all evidence of warnings in the record.

With respect to the second issue, medical causation between a defendant’s activities and a plaintiff’s injuries must be established on all counts. To establish liability in asbestos cases involving multiple defendants in New Jersey, plaintiffs are required to show evidence of exposure with “frequency, regularity, and proximity.” Union Carbide argued that this language should have been included in the jury charge. Instead, the lower court used model jury charge instructions directing the jury to merely establish that Union Carbide’s asbestos was “a cause” of the plaintiff’s injury. This court noted that while using model jury charge instructions is proper, courts should modify charges to meet the facts of a case.

Read the full decision here.