An Oakland jury on Wednesday awarded $4M in compensatory damages to a parts worker who unpacked truck brakes and contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos. The jury also found that the four defendants acted with malice. A punitive damages phase is scheduled to begin January 5, 2011.
"This case has been about corporations that refuse to accept responsibility for a preventable injury that will result in death," said Joe Satterley of Sales & Satterley, in his closing argument in the Gordon Bankhead v. Allied Packing asbestos trial. "These companies -- Abex, Carlisle, Fruehauf and Rockwell -- have contributed most of the exposure of the asbestos to Gordon Bankhead, and they could have prevented it. And this exposure was a substantial factor in contributing to the risk...of the mesothelioma."
Gordon Bankhead was a parts worker who unpacked heavy duty truck brakes at a container shipping seaport in Oakland, and eventually contracted mesothelioma.
Mr. Satterley listed each of the manufacturers' anticipated defenses, declaring each one "false," or "wrong," and challenged the factual underpinnings of the defense story. In particular, Mr. Satterley pointed out that there was no evidence, only conjecture, that Mr. Bankhead was exposed to amphibole asbestos on board any ship.
Mr. Satterley reviewed extensive evidence that chrysotile causes mesothelioma, and one-by-one challenged the defense experts' objectivity and the evidence relied upon. One defense expert, said Mr. Satterley, had changed his testimony based on whether he was testifying for the plaintiff or the defense, and had a "racket" going from which he had made millions of dollars.
Mr. Satterley also argued that clear and convincing evidence showed malice on the part of the asbestos companies, who allegedly had knowledge of the dangers but concealed it, and chose not to sell asbestos-free brakes because the safe brakes were less profitable.
For defendant PneumoAbex, Brydon Hugo & Parker's John Brydon told the jury that PneumoAbex asbestos did not contribute to Mr. Bankhead's illness -- "not a little, not a lot, not at all...Working with friction materials does not cause mesothelioma." According to Mr. Brydon, the plaintiffs had failed to establish causation. Working with PneumoAbex products not as a brake mechanic, but as a parts person, could not be a substantial factor in causing mesothelioma. Mr. Brydon said there was no scientific evidence that encapsulated fibers cause any disease.
McKenna Long & Aldridge's Frank Berfield, representing Arvin Meritor and Kelsey-Hayes (Fruehauf), told the jury that Mr. Bankhead's mesothelioma had nothing to do with the brakes that he handled as a parts person. Instead, Mr. Bankhead's mesothelioma risk resulted from many years of construction exposure in his youth, and then his shipboard exposure later on. By contrast, said Mr. Berfield, working with brakes is not an increased risk for mesothelioma in brake mechanics, nor would it be for a parts person, who has even less exposure than a brake mechanic.
Attorney Joseph McGuire, representing Carlisle Motion Control, told the jury that the science shows that brake linings containing asbestos do not cause mesothelioma. "What we're seeing here," said Mr. McGuire, "is an absolute denial of unmistakable science." Mr. McGuire also suggested that the plaintiff's case was unreliable because the proffered evidence was constantly shifting.
In his closing rebuttal, Mr. Satterley challenged the defense characterization of the expert testimony. "Instead of telling you what the evidence was," Mr. Satterley told the jury, "I'm going to show you what it was," and he played court video clips of some of the witnesses who had testified during the six-week trial.
The jury found in favor of the plaintiff on all questions, and allocated 90% of the fault to the four defendants and 10% to non-parties. The jury awarded $1.47M in economic damages, $1.5M in general damages (e.g., pain and suffering) to Gordon Bankhead, and $1M to Emily Bankhead for loss of consortium.
The jury also found that all four defendants -- ArvinMeritor (Rockwell International), Carlisle Corporation, Kelsey-Hayes Company (Fruehauf Corporation), and PneumoAbex -- acted with malice. Therefore, a punitive damages phase is scheduled to begin on January 5, 2011.