Staggering award in Calif. asbestos case not expected to stand

Chris Rizo May 9, 2010, 7:32pm

LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline)-The Southern California jury that awarded a whopping $200 million punitive damages award in a household-contact asbestos exposure case in which jurors awarded compensatory damages of $8.8 million will likely be reversed, a leading legal scholar said Sunday.

What could become the largest mesothelioma lawsuit award in California history was handed out late last month in Los Angeles County, home to one of the worst legal climates in the nation, according to civil defense lawyers.

"The award is unlikely to stand under California law, though I couldn't say if it's the trial court or appellate court that will reverse," Ted Frank, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute Center for Legal Policy, told Legal Newsline.

In a move that signals judicial scrutiny of the jury award, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Conrad Richard Aragon has postponed entering the judgment, which has a ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages of nearly 23:1.

Aragon has asked the plaintiffs' lawyers and defense counsel to submit briefs on what their side seen as an appropriate punitive damages award in the case.

In reporting on the decision legal blogger and attorney Bruce Nye of San Francisco expressed little surprise that the gigantic jury award was given in the jurisdiction it was.

"Ah yes, there will always be Los Angeles juries," the managing partner of Adams Nye Trapani Becht wrote on his Web site.

A Harris Interactive survey of 1,482 top corporate lawyers and executives released in March ranked Los Angeles County's courts as the second-worst in the nation for legal fairness, partly because of what critics decry as exorbitant damage awards issued by juries there.

If allowed to stand, the punitive damages award would dwarf the largest award currently to survive appeal in California - $55 million awarded to SUV rollover crash victim Benetta Buell-Wilson and her husband in 2004 in a San Diego County case against Ford Motor Co. The Michigan-based carmaker ultimately appealed its judgment to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last year rejected Ford's arguments.

As for the Los Angeles case, it is among asbestos-exposure lawsuits that comprise the longest-running mass tort in U.S. history. Since 1929, when the first asbestos-exposure case was filed, more than 600,000 people have filed lawsuits in American courts after being diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions including mesothelioma and asbestosis.

The Los Angeles case was filed by Rhoda Evans, who claimed her mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer, was caused by asbestos fibers and dust she breathed while washing work clothes belonging to her husband, a former longtime employee at the county's Department of Water and Power.

In his 24 years at the public works department, Bobby Evans was charged with cutting cement pipes containing crocidolite, a dangerous asbestos fiber. He started working at DWP in 1973.

The pipe was made by building materials manufacturer CertainTeed Corp., which at trial argued the county knew the pipes should only be cut with manual tools to protect workers.

Evans's attorneys said CertainTeed actually concealed the risk of asbestos exposure from DWP officials in an effort to protect the $40 million in annual revenues the company made on selling asbestos-containing cement pipe to the county.

Siding with plaintiffs' counsel William Levin of the Simes Kaiser & Gornick law firm of San Francisco, jurors determined that the company knew asbestos caused cancer in the 1960s, but did not place cancer warnings on its products until 1985.

In the company's defense, CertainTeed's attorney, William Sayers of McKenna Long & Aldridge, said the Department of Water and Power "knew generally" about the pipes' hazards but still began using a gas-powered saw to cut them, ignoring risks to employees' safety.

"They were cutting safely until 1978," Sayers was quoted as saying by Courtroom View Network, which broadcast the trial on the Internet.

CertainTeed is a wholly owned subsidiary of Compagnie de Saint-Gobain SA of France.

The case is Evans v. AW Chesterton Co et al., case no. BC418867.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at

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