Judge Slashes Worker’s $3 Million Asbestos Award

Posted February 11, 2013 in Jury Awards Products Liability by

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A judge has drastically reduced a $3 million jury verdict awarded to the widow of a worker who died from cancer after years of handling products made with asbestos.

Companies have been ordered by juries to pay millions of dollars only to have the damages slashed by a judge after trial.

Under “tort reform,” many states have passed laws that limit how much an injured person can collect, such as by capping damages at a few hundred thousand dollars.

Juries aren’t told about such caps at the time of trial, so they go ahead and award what they think is right. After trial, a judge cuts the award based on state damages caps.

That’s what happened in this case.

Kit McCormick worked on an Air Force base as a boiler tender, which involved installing and maintaining several boilers in six to eight small buildings over a long period of time. He developed mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. After his death, his wife Kelly sued boiler manufacturer Cleaver Brooks, which sold about a dozen types of boilers to the base.

One of McCormick’s co-workers testified he believed McCormick inhaled asbestos dust while handling firebrick that he installed and replaced in the boilers, and also from asbestos-laden insulation in the boilers’ sheet metal jackets.

The jury trial took place in New York but applied Kansas law because McCormick worked on the boilers in Kansas. Different states have passed their own laws limiting damages to victims in different kinds of cases.

Under Kansas law, so-called noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, are capped at $250,000 for negligence, and a separate cap for wrongful death is $250,000.

As a result, the most massive reductions were taken against the jury’s original award of $1.5 million for noneconomic damages to $250,000, and another $1.5 million awarded for wrongful death to $250,000.

The jury’s total $3.8 million was reduced to $980,000.

“The findings of the jury on total non-economic damages of $3,000,000 were excessive. They were appropriate when reduced pursuant to Kansas law to $500,000. The total amount of economic damages allocated against defendant of $480,000 was justifiable. The verdict of $980,000 was supported by the evidence,” wrote Brooklyn U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein.

In addition to these general damages some 16 states have passed laws specifically protecting companies that purchase an asbestos-manufacturing company from liability. Lawyers who represent asbestos victims call it a “corporate bailout” for asbestos makers.

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