MAN WINS $8.2 MILLION IN DAMAGES
BATON ROUGE ADVOCATE
By: Christopher Baughman
Date January 20, 1999
Exxon Corp. and nine other companies must pay more than 8 million to a man that claims his lungs were damaged while cleaning up a North Baton Rouge hazardous waste site, a jury decided Tuesday.
______________’s award includes more than $3.2 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.
The Louisiana Legislature abolished punitive damages for hazardous waste suits in 1996, said Locke Meredith, one of _________’s attorneys. But _________’s case qualified for punitive damages, which are meant to punish a defendant for wrongful conduct, because he suffered his injuries in 1987.
After the verdict in State District Court, the 47 year old _________ said he felt relief only because the 2- week trial had ended.
“Moneys not going my health back” said _________, who contends his lungs have hardened and lost their elasticity from exposure to chemicals. “But I’m happy the jury saw it my way and punished the chemical companies for what they have done”, he said.
John Schwab, who represented Exxon Corp. And the other defendants, said he did not know how the companies would divide payment of the award.
“I know that Exxon has the biggest share,” he said.
But Schwab added that he expects his clients to appeal the verdict.
The hazardous waste site is on Brooklawn Drive in north Baton Rouge between Highway 61 and the Mississippi River. It is a Federal Superfund site, which means it’s on a priority list for cleanups.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, Petro Processors of Louisiana Inc. A now defunct firm, owned and operated the Brooklawn site and another on Scenic Hwy. Said John deGravelles, another of _________’s attorneys.
Petro Processors hauled chemicals from Exxon and other companies and dumped them into lagoons there.
In 1980 The Environmental Protection Agency sued Petro Processors and the companies whose chemicals were dumped at the site, he said.
The EPA suit was settled in 1984 with the chemical companies agreeing to clean up the site, deGravelles said.
The first cleanup plan called for mixing the hazardous materials with lime and sucking out the water until a solid formed, deGravelles said. The solid material was to be taken out and put into an underground vault.
The solidification method was tried only about 25 times during the late 1987 and didn’t work deGravelles said.
_________ who worked as a night supervisor on 17 of those attempts, suffered lung damage from breathing new chemicals that formed when the lime was mixed with the hazardous material, Meredith said. “Some of this stuff, you couldn’t smell until it hurt you”, he said.
And when _________ had time to don safety equipment for breathing, it wasn’t good enough to protect him, Meredith said.
On Tuesday, deGravelles reminded the jury that _________’s treating physician testified a mark on _________’s lungs from a 1988 X-ray “more likely than not” came from exposure to chemicals at the site.
_________ has lost half the size of his lungs and 40% of their capacity, he said. “The chemicals, did indeed, cause this man’s problems”, deGravelles told the jury during his closing argument.
“The chemicals, did indeed, cause this man’s problems,” deGravelles told the jury during his closing arguments.
But Schwab told jurors that doctors used by the defense testified the streak was probably caused by pleurisy, a disease not related to his job.
Defense doctors said that if _________, who used to smoke two packs of cigarettes daily for 20 years, had lung problems, they didn’t come from working at the site, Schwab said.
_________ tended to be a hypochondriac, was obsessed with his body and saw the opportunity for a big payday by suing the chemical giants, Schwab told the Jury.
_________ also was trained and knew how to use safety equipment, he said. That all adds up to a lack of proof that _________ was injured on the job, Schwab said.
“There is no causation of injury to _________ by any chemicals at the site,” Schwab said.
The jury disagreed, and awarded _________ compensatory damages of more than $3.2 million. Compensatory damages are meant to compensate plaintiffs for their losses.
Jurors also found that _________ was injured through reckless and wanton actions by the chemical companies, setting up a decision over punitive damages.
Schwab told the jury it did not have to award punitive damages.
“It’s discretionary,” he said.
Although deGravelles did not ask for a set amount, he told the jury that Exxon’s profits in 1997 exceeded $8 billion. If a person making $20,000 a year had been reckless and wanton, taking 10 percent from them would be reasonable, deGravelles said.
He urged jurors to “send a message.”
“If you don’t want this kind of conduct to happen again, you have to make a meaningful award,” he told the jury.
A description of the case filed in court in preparation for trial lists the other defendants as American Hoechst Corp., Copolymer Rubber and Chemical Corp., Dow Chemical Co., Ethyl Corp., Rubicon Chemicals Inc., Shell Oil Co., Uniroyal Chemical Co., United States Steel Corp., and NPC Services. NPC Services was formed by the chemical companies to handle the cleanup.
DeGravelles and Meredith also represent more than 200 people who worked at nearby plants and claim to have been injured during the cleanup.
About 50 of those people were in court Tuesday to see the outcome of _________’s trial.