JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - The Mississippi Supreme Court last week reversed a jury award of $7.6 million in favor of a man who sued a sand supplier over his lung disease.
In its ruling Thursday, the Court said a circuit court judge abused his discretion by denying rather than reforming defendant Mississippi Valley Silica Company Inc.'s proposed "sophisticated-user" jury instruction.
Plaintiff Robert Eastman claimed MVS -- the company that supplied sand to his employer, Marathon LeTourneau -- failed to warn him of the dangers posed by sandblasting.
Eastman had worked as a sandblaster at LeTourneau, a shipbuilder in Vicksburg, Miss., for 28 years.
LeTourneau supplied silica sand it purchased from MVS to Eastman, who used it daily.
Toward the end of his career, he was diagnosed with silicosis, a form of occupational lung disease. The disease, a type of pneumoconiosis, is caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust and is typically marked by inflammation and scarring in the form of lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs.
Eastman later sued MVS under Mississippi's products-liability statute, alleging that the company's product was defective for failure to contain adequate warnings or instructions.
At trial, MVS requested a sophisticated-user/learned-intermediary jury instruction.
Warren County Circuit Judge Isadore W. Patrick Jr. refused the instruction for two reasons.
First, he stated the term "sophisticated user" was not defined and would "confuse" the jury. Second, he could recall no direct testimony that Eastman's employer knew or should have known of the dangers associated with sandblasting.
The jury returned a verdict for Eastman, finding MVS 60 percent at fault and awarded Eastman $3 million in punitive damages, $1.6 million in economic damages and $3 million in noneconomic damages for a total award of $7.6 million.
But because MVS was insolvent, Patrick reduced the punitive damages award to zero. Then, after applying Mississippi's statutory damages cap, he reduced the noneconomic damages to $1 million.
After the jury rendered the verdict, but before the judge entered final judgment, Eastman died.
Patrick later entered a final judgment for the deceased.
MVS timely appealed, raising eight issues, including the circuit judge's refusal to grant the sophisticated-user instruction.
"The rule is as simple as it is appropriate: When a party submits a jury instruction on an important issue not covered in the other instructions, it is the trial court's ultimate duty to instruct the jury properly," Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson wrote for the Court majority.
The majority said it found "no merit" in Patrick's reasons for refusing the instruction.
"Indeed, the instruction, itself, defined a sophisticated user (in the context of this case) as one who 'knew or should have known the dangers that may be associated with silica.' But even if the trial judge had been correct, that is, had the term not been defined, then the trial judge would have been in error for failing to define it for the jury," Dickinson explained.
"We do find that the instruction was improperly worded, not for the reason stated by the trial judge, but because it failed to include the common-law, reasonable-reliance requirement announced in Swan.
"And because the trial judge refused the instruction, rather than reforming it as required by Newell, Thomas, Harper, and McGill, we must reverse and remand for a new trial."
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.