Hidden Conflict by Judge Overturns Oil Worker’s $322 Million Asbestos Verdict
Thomas Brown, Jr. labored on oil rigs for three decades unloading raw asbestos; he now suffers from lung disease as a result and requires oxygen 24 hours a day in order to breathe. Last month he saw his record $322 million verdict wiped away by an appeals court and will have to go to trial for a second time.
Asbestos was commonly used in all kinds of products in the 1960s and 1970s but cancer caused by the toxin typically takes decades to develop and many of those lawsuits are just now going to trial.
It’s not uncommon for juries to get angry and award large verdicts when they see that companies who made asbestos hid its dangers, said Juan P. Bauta, an attorney with The Ferraro Law Firm in Miami.
“You don’t have to have a runaway jury to want to award that kind of money. The documents show these companies knew what they were doing and just didn’t care. It’s really the classic definition of reckless disregard for human life,” said Bauta.
Last May, Thomas Brown Jr. told a jury that part of his job working in the oil fields and oil rigs off the Gulf Coast included opening bags of raw asbestos powder made and sold by Union Carbide and Chevron Philips Chemical Co. as an additive to mud in the drilling process. Brown argued that the dust particles he inhaled from the asbestos powder over the years caused him to develop asbestosis, or scarring of the lungs and shortness of breath. He also asked for damages for emotional distress based on his fear of getting lung cancer.
The jury answered by awarding Brown $322 million in damages – the highest asbestos verdict in history for an individual. A huge part of that verdict, $300 million, was meant to punish the two companies.
A Conflict of Interest
But after the verdict, Union Carbide complained to an appeals court that the judge who oversaw the trial, Circuit Judge Eddie Bowen, was biased because his own father has suffered from asbestosis for over 20 years and had filed two lawsuits against Union Carbide.
According to papers filed by Union Carbide, Judge Bowen didn’t disclose his father’s illness on the record, but made an off-hand comment in his chambers before the trial that his father’s asbestosis may have been caused by workplace exposure to asbestos when he worked in the shipbuilding industry. The judge’s father sued Union Carbide in 1989 seeking $1 million in damages. That case settled out of court, but he filed a second lawsuit in 1992 alleging fear of cancer and, according to the company, that lawsuit is still open.
In its appeal, Union Carbide also blamed Judge Bowen for refusing to remove jurors with family members involved in asbestos lawsuits and for not removing the trial to another location where there were fewer asbestos-related lawsuits. Personal injury lawsuits over workplace asbestos exposure have been filed throughout Mississippi because of the large number of people working in the oil and gas and related industries there.
The appeals court agreed with Union Carbide, took Judge Bowen off the case and replaced him with a new judge. On December 27, the new judge, William Coleman, threw out the mammoth verdict.
Union Carbide said in a statement from spokesperson Scot Wheeler that it was “gratified by Judge Coleman’s decision to vacate in its entirety the jury verdict.” The company called the verdict “outrageous and completely unsupported by the facts and applicable law” and vowed to “vigorously defend all asbestos cases brought against the company.”
Brown’s case is scheduled to be retried in April in front of a new jury.