A California Court of Appeal has rejected a defense challenge that the defendant was assigned too high a percentage of liability (60%), because the defendant did not introduce enough evidence about other parties’ liability. The court also rejected a defense claim that the $25 million noneconomic damage award was excessive, even though it was “well beyond the normal range of awards in similar cases for similar injuries” per a survey of similar verdicts.
Phipps v. Copeland Corporation LLC was an asbestos personal injury case in which plaintiff alleged that his mesothelioma resulted from asbestos exposure during his three years in the U.S. Navy and during his subsequent career as an HVAC technician. Copeland Corporation was one of four compressor manufacturers plaintiff sued by plaintiff, along with many other defendants. Plaintiff proceeded to verdict against Copeland only.
Although plaintiff’s medical and causation experts acknowledged during trial at all of plaintiff’s asbestos exposures contributed to his overall dose, they specifically (and expectedly) amplified the exposures to the asbestos-containing gaskets contained within Copeland’s compressors in an effort to maximize Copeland’s share.
The jury found for plaintiff, and ultimately apportioned 60% liability to Copeland, of 15 parties and nonparties on the verdict form. Copeland argued that the evidence could not support “assigning twenty times more fault to Copeland than to any of the other compressor manufacturers, and more fault than all other entities combined.”
The court, however, disagreed. “[A]s the party with the burden to establish the percentage of comparative fault attributable to others [citations omitted], Copeland, to obtain a reversal, must show the evidence compelled a verdict in its favor on apportionment as a matter of law.” Copeland argued that the apportionment was “illogical” because it found Copeland more responsible than any other compressor companies. However, the court pointed out there was no evidence “to compel a finding that William replaced fewer Copeland gaskets than he did Carrier, Trane, or York gaskets.” In reaching this conclusion, the court found that there were sufficient, uncontroverted facts to establish that plaintiff would have worked with far fewer asbestos-containing components from the other equipment manufacturers than from Copeland. In the court’s view, Copeland failed to proffer sufficient evidence of the frequency, intensity and duration of plaintiff’s exposure to the products of other defendants, including the HVAC defendants, and so could not show that the jury’s 60% liability finding was improper.
“The second reason Copeland has failed to demonstrate the evidence compelled a verdict in its favor on apportionment as a matter of law is that ‘the jury was permitted to consider the relative culpability of the parties in assessing comparative fault.’” That culpability need not rise to the level of that required for punitive damages, as here the defense had won summary adjudication nixing punitive damages from the case.
Copeland also argued that the noneconomic damages award was excessive. In support, Copeland submitted to the trial court “a spreadsheet labeled “Plaintiff Verdict Amounts in Asbestos/Mesothelioma Cases.” An accompanying declaration explained that the spreadsheet was the result of “a process for obtaining comparative verdicts in cases that, similar to this one, involved allegations of asbestos exposure leading to mesothelioma,” based on “Lexis Advance® Verdict Analyzer.” Neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeal was moved by this use of technology.
“The trial court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to consider Copeland’s survey of awards in other cases because, if for no other reason, sections 657 and 658 prohibited the court from considering such material:” the statutes require motions to be made on “the minutes of the court.” Accordingly, and because the award was supported by substantial evidence, the judgment and denial of new trial was affirmed.
This case serves as a critical cautionary tale to defendants at trial of the importance of introducing evidence of the liability of others. While California’s Proposition 51 imposes several liability only for non-economic damages, the burden of proving these “alternate shares” lies exclusively with the defendant. The Phipps court made clear that, in its discretion, Copeland simply did not do enough to make a showing that the jury’s apportionment of responsibility was improper. In light of Phipps, a defendant should consider introducing evidence such as:
- Quantitative assessments of the likely doses of asbestos from the products of others and any possible exposures from one’s own products, including dose reconstructions from experts when possible;
- Medical causation evidence regarding the relative carcinogeneity of fiber type; and
- Documentary, “hard” evidence of a co-defendant’s liabilities.
When there are multiple defendants at trial, the plaintiff will make some of this case. Where, as here, there is only a single defendant, this will be more onerous and time-consuming.