Only a few days after Christmas, one Mississippi man received news that no plaintiff to a lawsuit wants to hear, that his jury award, which had been the largest verdict awarded to a single plaintiff in an asbestos case, had been vacated. The jury award was vacated by Mississippi judge William F. Coleman in an order signed on December 27, 2001. According to Forbes.com, the plaintiff, who had suffered personal injuries, or "asbestos maladies," as a result of being exposed to the chemical, was awarded $322 Million dollars by a Mississippi jury in May 2011.
According to the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, Thomas Brown Jr. filed the case styled Brown v. Phillips Co., 2006-196, in the Circuit Court of Smith County, Mississippi in 2006. Brown, who worked in the Mississippi's oil fields from 1979 to the mid 1980's, was later diagnosed with asbestosis. According to Brown's lawsuit, he acquired the condition as a result of inhaling asbestos dust while mixing drilling mud sold by Chevron Phillips Chemical and manufactured by Union Carbide Corporation, which was tainted with asbestos used as a thickening agent.
The jury found that Chevron Phillips and Union Carbide were liable to Brown in this product liability case, for defectively designing their product and failure to provide an adequate warning. Brown, who was 48 at the time of the award in May, said he was diagnosed with asbestosis and required to take oxygen 24-hours a day. As a result, the judgment included awards for medical expenses, damages for pain and suffering, and punitive damages. In total, Brown was awarded $322 million - $22 million in compensatory damages, and $300 million in punitive damages. According to Brown's lawyer, Allen Hossley, this was the biggest asbestos award ever to a single plaintiff. However, only months later, this award was vacated.
According to Bloomberg.com, Brown's award was overturned as a result of Carbide asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the verdict. Both companies claimed that Smith County Circuit Judge Eddie Bowen, the judge who had presided over Brown's case, had a conflict of interest because his parents had been involved in asbestos legal claims, including one against Union Carbide. According to the Associated Press, Union Carbide first asked Circuit Judge Eddie Bowen to toss out verdict shortly after the record award was handed down. They also asked Bowen to step down from the case. When Bowen didn't respond, Union Carbide went to the Supreme Court and asked the justices to remove him.
The Associated Press reports that Union Carbide claimed Bowen was a practicing attorney when his father and mother sued Union Carbide, seeking $1 million for emotional distress. The company said that after the trial, it "learned that Judge Bowen's father had filed two asbestos lawsuits, one of which remains pending; and that both Judge Bowen's father and mother had settled asbestos claims with UCC and other defendants based on a diagnosis of asbestosis -- which is the same disease claimed in this case."
Union Carbide said in its motion to the Mississippi Supreme Court that Bowen's bias and prejudice against Union Carbide and Chevron Phillips were clear from his rulings, comments in front of the jury, and his coaching of Brown's attorneys in questioning witnesses.
The Mississippi Supreme Court granted Union Carbide's request to remove Bowen in October, and named Judge William F. Coleman as the Special Judge in the case. It was Coleman who vacated the initial judgment in favor of Brown. In his order, Coleman stated: "the judgment, the underlying jury verdict, and all rulings and orders of the former trial judge."
Union Carbide spokesman Scot Wheeler said in an email to The Associated Press that the company was pleased with the verdict because it "was outrageous and completely unsupported by the facts and applicable law." A spokeswoman for Chevron Phillips Chemicals also said the company was "pleased" by Coleman's decision. She added that the company "remains confident in the Mississippi judicial system and looks forward to further proceedings before an impartial tribunal."
Despite Carbide and Chevron's confidence in another victory, it is my hope, as a Mississippi products liability lawyer, that Brown does indeed get another opportunity to take his case before a jury at trial. The service of justice in this case should not end with the recusal of an allegedly impartial judge, but justice should also extend to Mr. Brown, to ensure that he is justly compensated for his injury.