May 9, 2011

Mississippi jury awards $300 million in punitive damages in asbestos case

The Associated Press is reporting (via the Washington Post) that a jury in Mississippi awarded $322 million last week to a man who claimed he developed asbestosis as a result of working with drilling mud additives.  The defendants are Chevron and Union Carbide, who were each found 50 percent at fault for the plaintiff's injuries.  (Brown v. Phillips 66, et al., Miss. Cir. Ct., Smith Cty.)

The AP story says the $322 million award is the largest single plaintiff's asbestos verdict in U.S. history, according to the plaintiff's attorney.  The AP story doesn't say how much of that award was attributable to punitive damages, but this story in the HarrisMartin asbestos litigation reporter (subscription required) says the breakdown was as follows: $22 million in compensatory damages and $300 million in punitive damages.  That's a ratio of 13.7 to one, which cannot possibly withstand scrutiny under BMW and Campbell.  The award also appears to violate Mississippi law, which places limits on punitive damages based on a sliding scale according to the defendant's net worth.  The maximum award permitted under that statute (Miss. Code Ann. 11-1-65) is $20 million for a defendant with a net worth in excess of $1 billion.  Any way you slice it, this award doesn't figure to last very long.