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Jury awards asbestos plaintiff $9.3M; Defendant takes issue with punitive damages award

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Jul 17, 2014

BOSTON (Legal Newsline) - A valve manufacturer is seeking a new trial after a Massachusetts jury awarded more than $9 million to a claimant represented by an asbestos trust, arguing that the trial court erred when it excluded any mention of the family's prior state court trial or the defendant's bankruptcy proceeding.

A jury entered the verdict in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts on June 20 after a two-week trial.

After finding that defendant Turner & Newall Limited was negligent, breached the implied warranty of merchantability and acted recklessly, the jury awarded $3.1 million in compensatory damages and $6.2 million in punitive damages.

Decedent John T. Lydon was a pipefitter and business manager of his union. He died at the age of 84 after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. He was allegedly exposed to T&N's Limpet spray insulation in the 1960s.

Katherine Lydon filed the lawsuit against T&N by her agent The Federal-Mogul Asbestos Personal Injury Trust.

As a result of the jury verdict, T&N filed a July 11 brief in support of its motion for judgment as a matter of law, new trial or remittitur.

It claims it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the punitive damages award because the judgment should not have applied to this case.

T&N says that during closing statements, the trust justified punitive damages by saying the proceeds would go to the Lydon family when, in fact, the money was intended to compensate other future trust claimants who may not even file viable claims against T&N.

"Although the jurors thought they were being asked to award money to Mrs. Lydon," T&N argues, "they were instead being asked to shift monies from one side of a balance sheet to another in the trust's effort to attempt to access an excess layer of insurance and facilitate payments to other trust claimants."

"In other words, the trust is seeking to use punitive damages to compensate large numbers of claimants who are, in all likelihood, entitled to no damages at all from T&N," the defendant continued.

Additionally, punitive damages are designed to punish and deter. However, T&N contends these damages will not send a message to the defendant because it already went through bankruptcy proceedings and no longer manufactures or sells asbestos-containing products.

T&N explained that while punitive damages were improper, fairness and due process require that the award not exceed what is necessary to accomplish its goal as punishment. When there is no legitimate purpose constituting damages, it cannot stand, it argues.

Not only was there no basis for punitive damages, T&N asserts, but the award was far greater than what is allowable.

According to the trust's plan, claimants who are unhappy with the trust's valuation of their claims may litigate against the trust in the tort system seeking greater recoveries. However, limits were set on how the claims can be litigated and how much they can be paid.

Additionally, the plan prohibits any claimant from seeking or receiving punitive damages from the trust, the defendant claims.

It also alleges the jury was denied critical evidence concerning the situation, meaning they could not appropriately decide on the proper damage amounts.

The plaintiffs filed a motion in limine with 15 pages of requests on May 6.

Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV granted the motion in part and denied it in part on June 6.

Saylor ruled that T&N will "generally" be permitted to introduce evidence from the trial in state court that Lydon was exposed to asbestos products manufactured by other companies in order to show alternate possible causes of injury.

However, he ruled that the nature and result of the prior proceeding, including the fact that T&N was not sued in the first trial, was not allowed.

The defendant was also precluded from mentioning the bankruptcy proceeding.

"Having been precluded from presenting any evidence concerning the existence of the trust, the ultimate effect of any award, and the fact that there is a separate deal with Mrs. Lydon to secure her participation in this case T&N was left without remedy to correct the jury's misperceptions," the defendant argues.

T&N claims that everyone involved in the trial except the jury was aware of the inaccuracies, but what's worse is that it was precluded from ever addressing the misrepresentations for the jury.

"How could T&N argue to the jury what compensatory damages (if any) were appropriate or what amount of punitive damages (if any) would best serve the purpose of deterrence when T&N was unable to introduce evidence of T&N's status and bankruptcy proceedings, of the prior state court lawsuit, or even that the trust existed and what it does?" the defendant questioned.

"How could T&N demonstrate who would stand to gain anything from a plaintiff's verdict in this case when it was prevented from even referring to the trust?" it added. "And how was the jury to understand that Mrs. Lydon had already received compensation from the first lawsuit derived from the exact same underlying facts as this one, a lawsuit in which T&N was not even named a defendant, and how a separate compensation agreement with the trust regarding this case?"

From Legal Newsline: Reach Heather Isringhausen Gvillo at asbestos@legalnewsline.com

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