Appeals Court Upholds $2 Million Verdict Against John Crane

July 11, 2003 – Media Coverage
HarrisMartin

ATLANTA - A state appeals court has upheld a $2 million asbestos verdict after determining that the jury had been adequately instructed regarding proximate causation before it found defendant John Crane, Inc., liable for the plaintiff's alleged injury. John Crane, Inc. v. Jones, No. A03A0301 (Ga. Ct. App.).

In a decision released July 2, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err when it refused to instruct the jury that the plaintiff's widow could not recover for her husband's alleged exposure to Crane's product unless it was determined that it was a substantial cause of his mesothelioma.

Robert Jones sued Crane and several others, alleging that he developed mesothelioma as a result of his exposure to Crane's packing product while working for Brunswick Pulp & Paper. By the time the case went to trial, Jones had died from the disease, and Crane was the only remaining defendant in the case. After a Fulton County Superior Court jury awarded Jones' wife $1.975 million, Crane moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial, both of which were denied.

Crane appealed, arguing that the trial court erred when it omitted the word 'substantial' from the 'substantial contributing factor' language from the jury charge. According to the decision, the decision to omit the substantial language was based on a prior asbestos case where it was left out of the charge. Additionally, in omitting the language, the trial court said it was concerned that the jury would be left without a definition of 'substantial' and that Crane failed to offer one in its objection to the omission. Finally, the court reasoned that its decision was based on the fact that as far as the jury was concerned, Crane was the only defendant at issue in the case. Therefore, it could not be said that any defendant contributed to Jones' alleged injury substantially more than any other. During deliberations, the jury asked the court to clarify the definition of contributing factor. However, the trial court failed to honor the request - a move that Crane said confused the jury into believing that it could award damages for de minimus exposure to asbestos.

Finding no error on the part of the trial court in its decision to omit the word 'substantial,' the appeals court said that it sympathized with the court's dilemma. The trial court acted properly in response to the jury's written inquiry by fully recharging all applicable principles, the trial court said.

'Although many legal scholars have attempted to lay down a single standard to determine proximate causation, ... no satisfactory universal formula has emerged,' the court said. 'Instead, proximate cause is always to be determined by the facts of each case upon mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy and precedent. The best use that can be made of the authorities on proximate cause is merely to furnish illustrations which judicious men upon careful consideration have adjudged to be on one side of the line or the other.'

Adding the word 'substantial' would have unfairly prejudiced the plaintiff, the appeals court concluded.

The appeals court also rejected Crane's contention that the trial court incorrectly refused to permit two of its expert witnesses - Frederick Toca, Ph.D. and Henry Buccigross - to testify as to asbestos fiber counts on Crane packing that had been performed by an outside laboratory.

'The court correctly determined that testimony concerning the actual counts was inadmissible hearsay absent a witness from the laboratory or a report the complied with [Georgia law],' the appeals court said.

Additionally, the appeals court refused to reverse the trial court's decision to allow Jones to introduce evidence that Crane put warnings on its packaging in 1983 and 1984 and found that the trial court correctly refused to grant Crane's JNOV, which was based on Jones' alleged failure to produce evidence that the defendant's packing released respirable asbestos fibers.

'As long as there is some evidence to support the verdict, the denial of defendant's motion for [JNOV] will not be disturbed,' the appeals court said. 'Jones recalled that Crane was one of the manufacturers of the products containing asbestos to which he was exposed at [Brunswick]. This is evidence from which a jury could find that Crane's packing released respirable asbestos fibers to which Jones was exposed throughout his 42-year career at the mill. Crane's motion for JNOV was properly denied.'

Roger B. Lane of Lane & Gossett in Brunswick, Ga., represented Jones.

John Crane was represented by Ollie Harton and Jennifer P. Treanor of Hawkins Parnell & Young in Atlanta.

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