An 11-person jury ordered ExxonMobil to pay $5 million to the widow of a former contract worker at the company’s Baton Rouge plant who died of a disease caused by exposure to asbestos in the 1960s.
The jury found that ExxonMobil was solely responsible for James Terrance contracting mesothelioma — cancer of the lining of the lung or abdominal cavity linked to asbestos. “We’re very gratified,” attorney Lewis Unglesby said. “Exxon knew about all the dangers since the 1930s and protects its own employees from those dangers.”
Terrance was a contract worker at the Baton Rouge plant in the 1960s. His job was to chip paint with asbestos from pipes at the facility, said Unglesby, the attorney for Terrance’s widow, Sadie Mae Terrance. In the 1960s, ExxonMobil began using contract workers to do some work at the plant, such as the work performed by Terrance. The lawsuit filed by Terrance maintains Exxon used precautions to prevent its own workers from being exposed to asbestos, but did not take the same precautions with contract workers.
The jury returned the verdict Saturday night after four hours of deliberations. The case took a strange twist May 30, about half way through the trial, when one of the jurors suffered from heart problems and had to receive treatment from Emergency Medical Services. The juror was unable to continue. A legal fight ensued over whether the trial could go on with 11 jurors or if state District Judge Janice Clark should grant ExxonMobil’s request for a mistrial. Clark ruled that the trial should continue, but ExxonMobil took the ruling to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal for review.
The 1st Circuit on June 15 sided with ExxonMobil and ruled that a mistrial should be granted. A day later, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the 1st Circuit’s ruling and the trial resumed last week. Unglesby said Monday he does not think the question of the trial continuing with 11 jurors will be a major issue on appeal because the Supreme Court already has considered the matter. But, Gary Bezet, an attorney for ExxonMobil, does not think the issue is done. “We will appeal and I believe that is something that can be addressed on appeal,” Bezet said Monday.
Bezet also said he does not believe the facts of the case support the jury’s verdict. He was “surprised and disappointed” by the jury verdict, Bezet said. “While we continue to sympathize with the family, we continue to hold that our facility and practices were not the cause” of James Terrance’s mesothelioma, he said. Alternate jurors typically are chosen for trials that are expected to take longer than a week. Alternates can step in if a juror becomes ill, has a death in the family, or if some other serious circumstance arises. In this case, neither side objected to starting the trial without alternates. Unglesby argued that he was willing to go forward with 11 jurors because it only takes nine jurors to reach a verdict.
He also argued during a May 31 hearing that 10 of the jurors are women and the same numbers are African-American. And because his client is an African-American woman, this jury provided her with an excellent opportunity to have a jury of her peers. Unglesby also said that ExxonMobil is without peers because the company “sells gasoline and products to anybody with a dollar bill.”
Bezet countered by saying that Louisiana law requires 12 jurors to preside over trials. The only way for a trial to resume with fewer than 12 jurors is if both parties agree to continue with the smaller jury, which ExxonMobil did not do. ExxonMobil’s attorney also said he was shocked by Unglesby’s remarks about the composition of the jury. Clark explained that she denied ExxonMobil’s request for a mistrial because it was a “harsh remedy” that caused problems for both parties as well as her staff.