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Exxon Mobil Corp. escaped paying a nearly $25 million judgment to a ship worker who contracted mesothelioma because crucial evidence was excluded from trial, according to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Robert E. Minton worked in various positions for Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. in Newport News, Va., from 1956 to 1993, court records show. As a shipfitter, he was exposed to asbestos while working to construct new ships, and, as a repair supervisor, he worked on ships that contained asbestos. Several of the ships that Mr. Minton supervised reportedly belonged to Irving, Texas-based Exxon.
Mr. Minton was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009 and sued Exxon under the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, court records show. In his claim, Mr. Minton alleged that Exxon failed to warn and protect him from asbestos-related risks on its ships that he had worked on.
A Newport News Circuit Court jury ordered Exxon to pay $12 million in compensatory damages and $12.5 million in punitive damages to Mr. Minton, although a judge later reduced the punitive judgment to $5 million, records show.
The Virginia Supreme Court reversed that decision Thursday. In its ruling, the high court said there was sufficient evidence to show Exxon failed to protect Mr. Minton from asbestos exposure after his employer also failed to do so, and that exposure to Exxon's ships was a “substantial contributing factor” to his mesothelioma.
However, the high court noted that evidence was excluded in Mr. Minton's trial that showed that the Newport News shipyard had knowledge of asbestos dangers. The court found that the jury verdict could have been affected by the exclusion.
“Whether Exxon violated its duty to intervene was one of the two potential bases for the verdict in favor of Minton,” the ruling reads. “Because we cannot determine from the record whether the jury found in favor of Minton based upon the duty to intervene without the opportunity to consider the excluded evidence, or because of Exxon's violation of the active control duty, we will reverse the judgment of the circuit court.”
The court said Exxon's duty to protect Mr. Minton under Longshore law depended on whether it could “not to rely on the shipyard to provide the necessary protective measures.”
Excluded evidence in Mr. Minton's circuit court trial showed that the shipyard conducted several programs to protect employees from asbestos dangers, such as providing respirators for insulation work and using “wet-down techniques to keep asbestos fibers from becoming airborne.”
The court also said Mr. Minton could not be awarded punitive damages because the Longshore Act does not allow punitive damages to be granted in such cases.
Two of the high court's justices wrote a partial dissent, saying that Exxon's liability stood apart from the shipyard's duty to protect Mr. Minton and that Mr. Minton should be allowed to seek punitive damages.
The case was remanded to the Newport News Circuit Court for further proceedings.