April 3, 2008

Texas Court of Appeals Reverses Punitive Damages Award Against Exxon Mobil

Today, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Texas issued its opinion in Exxon Mobil Corporation v. Altimore, reversing a punitive damages award against Exxon Mobil in an asbestos case.

In this "take home" or "secondhand" asbestos exposure case, the plaintiff claimed she developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos dust that her husband brought home on his clothes. The plaintiff's husband had worked with asbestos at an Exxon refinery from 1942 through 1977. The jury found Exxon guilty of malice and awarded roughly $1 million in punitive damages.

In Texas, malice requires a showing that the defendant knowingly subjected the plaintiff to an extreme degree of risk. The appellate court found that the record contained insufficient evidence to support the conclusion that Exxon was aware of an extreme degree of risk to the plaintiff during the relevant time period. First, the court noted that although asbestos had been associated with health risks since at least the 1930's, knowledge about the risks evolved over time. During the relevant time period, 1942 to 1972, scientists incorrectly believed that certain exposure levels would be safe. The court also found that the plaintiff had failed to introduce a single study from the relevant time period showing that family members of refinery workers were exposed to an extreme degree of risk.

This opinion provides an interesting contrast to the recent California opinion in Garza v. Asbestos Corporation. As we mentioned last week, the court in that case affirmed a punitive damages award based solely on the fact that studies in the 1930's and earlier had established a link between asbestos and health problems. Unlike the Altimore court, the Garza court did not take into account the evolving understanding of asbestos hazards, and did not consider whether the defendant knew during the relevant time period that the exposure levels involved created a risk to the plaintiff's health.