April 2017

A tale of two verdicts (1)Frequently as litigators, we are faced with questions about which factors can make or break a trial. The facts of each case and skill of counsel are obvious elements to obtaining a favorable verdict, but outcomes can also be heavily influenced by the venue, pre-trial rulings, voir dire, jury instructions and even the sheer whim of a jury.

Within the last few weeks, two separate verdicts came down in mesothelioma lawsuits. Both cases were heard in state courts, both cases involved a deceased plaintiff, both cases were brought by the same plaintiffs’ firm that specializes in asbestos claims, and both cases had only one defendant remaining at the time of verdict. However, one jury found for the defense, while the other awarded $81.5 million to the plaintiffs. What were the specific facts of each case, and what were the factors that might explain how two similar cases turned out so differently?

New Orleans, Louisiana

Mr. Thomas Hayden died of pleural mesothelioma in March 2016. He served in the Navy aboard the USS Edson in the 1960s, during which time he often worked in the boiler rooms. He later worked as a mechanic for a several decades, working on tractors, and, during this time, he also worked building scaffolding at various industrial facilities throughout South Louisiana. He alleged generally that he had worked with asbestos-containing friction products while working on tractors, and that he was in the vicinity of asbestos-containing products, particularly asbestos insulation, while he constructed scaffolding. Importantly, the plaintiffs in Hayden stipulated that they would not seek any damages for exposure to asbestos related to Mr. Hayden’s time in the Navy. Accordingly, the suit remained in state court.

Of the 72 originally sued defendants, only ExxonMobil, Corp. remained at the time of verdict. About 15 parties were dismissed via summary judgment, one (1) party was bankrupt, and the remaining parties settled or were dismissed voluntarily. Mr. Hayden was never employed directly by Exxon, but rather he allegedly worked as a contractor building scaffolding at an Exxon facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He could not identify whether he worked on the chemical or the refinery side of the Exxon facility. He could not recall if the scaffolding he built was for new construction or maintenance. Nor could he recall handling any asbestos-containing products at Exxon.  Moreover, he could not identify the brand name or manufacturer of any products installed by other crafts. He could not even recall seeing any pipe insulation at Exxon. Finally, his work at Exxon was for a total of approximately one (1) week, sometime between 1982 and 1985.

Counsel for Exxon stressed Mr. Hayden’s inability to recall basic details about his alleged work at the Exxon facility, suggesting to jurors that this lack of memory was because Mr. Hayden never actually worked at Exxon. In closing arguments, counsel for Exxon contrasted the dearth of testimony regarding Mr. Hayden’s alleged work at Exxon with his ability to recall co-workers, supervisors, and products at other worksites. Counsel suggested
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lawjUSTICEBWThis month, attorneys working at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Justice filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense (Seeger et al v. U.S. Department of Defense et al, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, No. 17-00639), in which they allege that they have been exposed to dangerously high levels of carcinogens from working in contaminated areas. The four attorneys, who include Army Major Matthew Seeger and three civilian attorneys, represent Walid Bin Attash, a Yemeni man charged with helping to plot the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The attorneys’ complaint alleges that various environmental hazards at the Guantanamo Bay Camp Justice complex have been linked to nine cases of cancer since 2008 among individuals who worked at the camp, and that the U.S. Navy has not properly investigated these conditions. The nine individuals range between the ages of 35 and 52, and their diagnosed illnesses have included lymphoma, colon, brain, and appendix cancer. Camp Justice is located on the site of a former airfield, and includes temporary housing units, as well as offices where the attorneys both live and work while at the camp. This former airfield was at one point allegedly used to dispose of jet fuel.

The complaint alleges that the attorneys first approached authorities with complaints in July, 2015 and requested an investigation into whether conditions at Camp Justice had contributed to several cancer cases among employees who worked at the camp. The suit further alleges that the U.S. Navy conducted a flawed investigation of the alleged environmental hazards, failing to determine what kind of a risk they posed to personnel and further failing to determine appropriate measures to remedy the situation.

The Navy’s preliminary investigation included an industrial hygiene and habitability survey of Camp Justice’s buildings where personnel live and work. The investigation documented the presence of multiple environmental hazards, including poorly-maintained asbestos-containing floor tile, lead-based paint chips, air samples that tested positive for mercury and formaldehyde, and soil samples that tested positive for benzopryene. All of these substances have been found to be carcinogenic. The Navy’s report acknowledged that their environmental and historical investigations were limited, but nevertheless found that there was insufficient evidence to address potential exposures to carcinogens. With that, they deemed the property’s buildings to be habitable. Additionally, following a review of military health records, they concluded that the number and types of cancer cases did not meet the Center for Disease Control’s definition of a “cancer cluster” and therefore did not warrant a formal cancer cluster investigation. These and additional findings were detailed in a risk assessment report published in February, 2016, which ultimately found that the potential cancer risk cannot be determined and identified the need for further sampling in response to the carcinogens documented during the investigation.

While none of the Plaintiffs have been diagnosed with cancer at this time, they allege that they face an increased risk of developing cancer or other serious diseases, and suffer from emotional distress, upper respiratory symptoms and infections, migraine headaches, itching
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