Record $322M asbestos verdict wiped away

By John O'Brien | Jan 5, 2012


RALEIGH, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - A record-setting verdict in a Mississippi asbestos case has been vacated.

Forbes reported Tuesday that the new judge on the case reversed the $322 million verdict that a Smith County jury reached before it was determined the presiding judge had a conflict of interest. The Mississippi Supreme Court booted Judge Eddie Bowen off the case in October because he did not disclose that his father had filed a pair of asbestos lawsuits.

Judge William Coleman vacated the judgment and all rules and orders by Bowen, the report says. The $322 million figure represented the largest single verdict in American asbestos litigation history. The jury, in ruling against Union Carbide and Chevron Phillips Chemical, awarded $300 million in punitive damages to Thomas Brown Jr.

Bowen had excused potential jurors who had connections to asbestos litigations through immediate family members, but did not disclose that his father had filed two asbestos suits.

"Based on the particular facts of this case, including: (1) Judge Bowen's reluctance to provide information about his father's claim; (2) Judge Bowen's decision to preemptively strike all jurors with family members who had asbestos claims; (3) the history of asbestos claims filed by Judge Bowen's father and mother; and (4) the settlement released signed by Judge Bowen's father with Union Carbide; we find that a reasonable person, knowing all of the circumstances, would harbor doubts about Judge Bowen's impartiality in this particular case," Justice Jess Dickinson wrote in October.

Like Bowen's father, Brown claimed asbestos products were defective in design and in warning. Bowen's father and mother settled their claims with many defendants, including Union Carbide, after requesting $1 million in the complaint.

"The basis of the judge's family claims against Union Carbide was the judge's father's alleged exposure to Calidria Chrysotile asbestos fiber mined, milled and manufactured by the company," the motion says. "Plaintiff Brown likewise alleged exposure to the exact same Calidria chrysotile asbestos (mined from the same source and milled in the same manner) as the judge's father."

Bowen's father also sued Johns Manville, which was the asbestos supplier for CP Chem.

The state Constitution shows three instances for the disqualification of a judge, one of which is any matter "where the parties, or either of them, shall be connected with him by affinity or consanguinity, or where he may be interested in the same, except by the consent of the judge and of the parties."

The company said, "Recusal here is warranted by the constitutional, statutory and canonical standards cited above as established by the facts and circumstances identified herein, as well as the actual bias and prejudice demonstrated by Judge Bowen against Union Carbide Corporation and CP Chem throughout the course of the trial."

The company claims Bowen acted with bias against it in several ways:

-His demeanor toward certain attorneys and witnesses;

-His rulings on evidentiary issues;

-His comments about the weight of the evidence;

-His coaching of the plaintiff's attorneys in their examination of witnesses and with regard to objections; and

-His rulings that were "simply incongruous with clear principles of Mississippi law."

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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