On the last day of August, 2012 an Illinois judge ruled to vacate a $90 million asbestos victory in favor of a smaller $8.4 million award. The reduction surely left asbestos attorneys all across Illinois, and even the Nation, reeling. Anyone who has first-hand knowledge of the hardships suffered by those who contract mesothelioma is probably left wondering why such a large damage reduction occurred.
Although the reasoning behind judicial decisions is often somewhat of a mystery, in this particular case the reduction can be traced ‘legally speaking’ to a distinct cause. This asbestos claim involved four major defendants. All of the defendants were involved in some way or another in the employment of the deceased plaintiff, a 59-year-old pipe worker. As such, any of the defendants may have been liable for some part of the man’s injuries.
Asbestos and mesothelioma related legal claims usually arise under the general category of tort law. In the American legal system, companies can be held responsible under tort law for a person’s injuries. When multiple defendants are involved the liability may be split up in a percentage based fashion meant to represent the portion of the injuries each individual employer is responsible for.
In the pipe-fitter’s case the breakdown was (all amounts are millions
of dollars): $8.4 for John Crane Inc.; $9.6 per company for Pneumo Abex
LLC, Honeywell International, and Owens-Illinois; $20 each for Pneumo
Abex and Honeywell in punitive damages; and $40 for Owens-Illinois in
punitive damages. Punitive damages are assigned under tort law to compensate
victims and their families for less tangible sides of an injury like mental
and emotional distress, or loss of consortium (loss of the emotional and
physical companionship with a spouse). Punitive damages in tort law frequently
receive a lot of scrutiny due to the high nature, like $40 million against
Owens-Illinois, but nevertheless the awards are often upheld.
The reduction of punitive damages in this case would not have been completely shocking, but the complete removal of three defendants from the awards granted to the plaintiff does make this judicial action shocking. Judicial discretion of this nature should receive serious reconsideration. Particularly in light of the fact that a twelve member jury unanimously voted to approve awards against all four defendants.
According to the Sacramento Bee, the judge in the case reduced the awards based on the fact that he felt there was not substantial enough evidence to hold the three defendants (Pneumo, Honeywell, and Owens-Illinois) responsible for any portion of the injury. The plaintiff’s allegations against these three defendants were based on a theory of conspiracy between the companies to hide information about employee expose to asbestos. Similar claims have been rejected in other 4th circuit appellate rulings in recent years in Illinois. Despite a trend away from upholding these sorts of awards, the attorneys for the deceased man’s wife will likely appeal the ruling. The judge’s ruling represents a more conservative legal approach where liability rests solely with the employer who directly controlled the job site where the exposure took place.
If you or a loved one is injured by asbestos or mesothelioma you should contact an experienced asbestos lawyer as soon as possible. Based on this case it is evidently difficult, but possible, to receive large compensation for your injuries. In order to secure the maximum compensation possible it would be best to work with an attorney who knows the legal ins and outs of complex tort liability.