Legal Questions Surround $200M Mesothelioma Award

Jurors awarded $200 million in punitive and $8.8 million in compensatory damages in the household-contact asbestos exposure case.

Mesothelioma, most often referred to as malignant mesothelioma, is a rare form of cancer that develops in the mesothelium, the protective lining that covers many of the body's internal organs. It is usually caused by asbestos exposure.

An award, which could become the largest mesothelioma lawsuit award in California history, was handed out late last month in Los Angeles County. The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by Rhoda Evans, claimed her mesothelioma was caused by asbestos exposure to fibers and dust she breathed while washing the work clothes belonging to her husband, a former employee of the county's Department of Water and Power. Her husband started working at DWP in 1973.

During his 24 years at the public works department, Bobby Evans used to cut cement pipes containing crocidolite, a dangerous asbestos fiber. At the trial, CertainTeed Corporation, the building materials manufacturer who made the pipes, argued that the county knew the pipes should only be cut with manual tools to protect workers. CertainTeed is a wholly owned subsidiary of Compagnie de Saint-Gobain SA of France.

Evans's attorneys said CertainTeed actually concealed the risk of asbestos exposure from DWP officials in an effort to protect the $40 million in annual revenues the company made on selling asbestos-containing cement pipe to the county.

Jurors determined that the company knew asbestos caused cancer in the 1960s, but did not place cancer warnings on its products until 1985 and awarded $200 million in punitive and $8.8 million in compensatory damages in the household-contact asbestos exposure case.

In a move that signals judicial scrutiny of the jury award, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Conrad Richard Aragon has postponed entering the judgment, which has a ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages of nearly 23:1. Aragon has asked the plaintiffs' lawyers and defense counsel to submit briefs on what their side seen as an appropriate punitive damages award in the case.

If allowed to stand, the punitive damages award would dwarf the largest award currently to survive appeal in California - $55 million awarded to SUV rollover crash victim Benetta Buell-Wilson and her husband in 2004 in a case against Ford Motor Company. The Michigan-based carmaker ultimately appealed its judgment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last year rejected Ford's arguments.

A Harris Interactive survey of 1,482 top corporate lawyers and executives released in March ranked Los Angeles County's courts as the second-worst in the nation for legal fairness, partly because of what critics decry as exorbitant damage awards issued by juries there.

Evan's lawsuit is one of many asbestos exposure lawsuits that comprise the longest-running mass tort in U.S. history. Since 1929, when the first asbestos exposure case was filed, more than 600,000 people have filed lawsuits in American courts after being diagnosed with asbestos related conditions including mesothelioma and asbestosis.

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