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LOS ANGELES -- Five chemical manufacturers will appeal the $785 million in damages awarded to workers who claim they became ill from chemicals used in building secret aircraft such as the Stealth bomber.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded 38 current and former Lockheed employees $760 million in punitive damages and $25 million in economic damages. The punitive award was assessed Aug. 6 against the following: Dublin, Ohio-based Ashland Chemical Co.; Houston-based Exxon Chemical Co.; El Segundo, Calif.-based Unocal Corp.; Houston-based Shell Oil Co.; and Wilmington, Del.-based E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
The five companies supplied solvents and other chemicals used at a Lockheed aircraft facility formerly in Burbank, Calif. In 1992, Lockheed settled the suit with the 38 plaintiffs plus others for $33 million, said a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin Corp., the company formed by Lockheed's 1995 merger with Martin Marietta Corp.
Lockheed employees were able to sue their employer under California law, which permits employees to go outside the workers compensation system if an employer's conduct is found to present a grave danger, the Lockheed spokeswoman said.
This month's jury verdict against the chemical manufacturers is "totally out of line," a Unocal spokesman said. The defendants have several grounds for appeal, including bias by the judge, the spokesman said. As of late last week, a motion to appeal had not been filed.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim they have suffered from several ailments, including skin rashes and cancer, after being exposed to solvents and other chemicals that did not have adequate warning labels.
But the jury never had the opportunity to hear evidence that the chemical manufacturers did provide warning labels on their chemical containers, a Unocal spokesman said.
"The judge just instructed them that the warning labels were inadequate, and that was it. They never even knew we had warning labels," the spokesman said.
The judge also told jurors before their deliberation that they needed to send a message to large chemical companies, he added.
The contact with solvents and other chemicals took place in the 1960s, '70s and '80s at the Lockheed facility in Burbank, the plaintiffs charged in court papers. The 38 plaintiffs comprise the fifth group of Lockheed employees to go to court with similar allegations against the chemical manufacturers.
But it is the first group of Lockheed plaintiff employees awarded punitive damages and the first group in which the defendants were not allowed to show the jury evidence that the companies did provide warnings, the Unocal spokesman said.
In two previous cases, Lockheed employees did win "minimal" economic damage awards, the spokesman said. He did not provide a specific amount for those awards but said those decisions are being appealed.
More than 600 Lockheed workers have participated in the suits, with several still waiting to resolve their cases.
In California, punitive damages generally are not insurable, and spokespeople for the defendants declined to say whether their companies are insured for the economic damages.
The chemical companies all referred telephone calls to their joint counsel, Laurence F. Janssen, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Steptoe & Johnson. Punitive damages of this magnitude generally are overturned or substantially reduced, Mr. Janssen pointed out.
Safety practices were the responsibility of Lockheed, he said. During the trial, a former Lockheed hygienist and a senior scientist testified that the employer knew a great deal about the chemicals involved and their health hazards, Mr. Janssen said.
Lockheed's spokeswoman said the company dealt with the chemicals in a fashion that was normal and acceptable in past years. But she pointed out that government safety standards were not as stringent in past decades and that Lockheed had started implementing stronger safety practices even before the employees began filing lawsuits in the 1980s.
Now, she said, there is more employee training in hazardous materials and enforced use of safety equipment. Another major improvement has been in working with chemical manufacturers to substitute benign substances for more toxic chemicals, she said.