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Miss. Jury's $322M Asbestos Verdict is Largest in US History

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on May 11, 2011 6:47 AM

Is asbestos litigation back in the spotlight?

A $322 million jury verdict in Mississippi, the largest asbestos verdict in U.S. history, has pushed the envelope. Plaintiffs and plaintiff's attorneys are cheering - while attorneys for chemical companies are reeling.

Thomas Brown Jr., 48, was awarded the sum after he prevailed against Chevron Phillips Chemical (CP Chem) and Union Carbide Corporation. Brown was 16 when he began working in the oil fields in the late 1970s, and was 30 when he was diagnosed with asbestosis.

He now requires daily oxygen support, reports The Clarion Ledger. Asbestosis is incurable, and can cause difficulty breathing, a crackling sound in the lungs, and can result in cardiac arrest in serious cases.

The breakdown of the award was $22 million in compensatory damages, and $300 million in punitive damages. There was evidence that both CP Chem and Union Carbide proceeded with using asbestos despite being well-aware of the risk of cancer and other associated illnesses.

The defense had argued that Brown, who is illiterate, was not protected under a Mississippi statute that required companies to warn workers about the dangers of working with asbestos, reports The Laurel Leader-Call. Clearly, a jury disagreed.

Asbestos litigation has been around for years, and millions of claims have been filed. The cost of asbestos litigation has driven over 85 corporations into bankruptcy, and has had an estimated total cost of $275 billion. However, most settlements have been much lower, the average being only several million dollars.

Is the $322 million verdict a sign that asbestos litigation is going to take off? In one study of asbestos trials, Mississippi was considered an outlier - plaintiffs received a higher compensatory award, and plaintiffs were more likely to prevail at trial, according to a 2005 paper by University of California, San Diego economics professor Michelle J. White.

Considering the long history of asbestos litigation, the $322 million verdict seems more of a rarity than the reality of asbestos verdicts. CP Chem and Union Carbide's attorneys seem to agree, vowing to appeal their case to the Mississippi Supreme Court, reports The Clarion Ledger.

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