The case of Soto v. BogWarner Morse TEC started with a man working on an automobile assembly line in the 1950s through the late 1980s. During this time, he was reportedly exposed to a substance called asbestos.
By now, we all know asbestos, when airborne and breathed into the lungs, is deadly. It causes conditions such as asbestosis, a chronic lung condition, lung cancer and mesothelioma, a terminal form of cancer. The onset of these conditions is latent, often not appearing until decades after exposure.
Asbestos isn’t widely used today because of the known health risks, but its heat-resistant properties made it popular for years in the auto industry, shipping industry, construction industry and more. Many of the manufacturers of these products were aware of the potential danger, and either failed to warn or actively concealed these dangers to workers and consumers.
Today, many of these companies are now defendants in mesothelioma litigation, which is often complex and time-consuming. For this reason and because mesothelioma is so aggressive, many plaintiffs don’t personally live to see their cases resolved. That’s why family members often are the ones to carry on the case, as representatives or beneficiaries of decedent’s estate.
This was the case in Soto, recently before the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Four.
In late 2009, this former auto assembly line worker was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The only recognized cause of this illness is exposure to asbestos dust.
With this knowledge, he filed a personal injury lawsuit against a number of defendants just a few months after the diagnosis. He alleged strict products liability, fraud/failure to warn and breach of implied warranty. He immediately gave his testimony via video deposition before passing away in July 2010 – roughly eight months after his diagnosis.
His three adult daughters amended the complaint, listing themselves as representatives to his estate and asserting claims of wrongful death. They also later added his great-grandson as a plaintiff, arguing he was a minor in decedent’s household and was supported by decedent at the time of his death.
One of defendants was BogWarner (BWMT) whose predecessor produced products (auto clutches) installed into new vehicles at the auto manufacturer. At all times prior to decedent’s retirement, this was the only provider of clutches to the manufacturer, and all of those contained asbestos.
There was, however, evidence that decedent may have been exposed to asbestos also while he was a child, when his father, working as a laborer at a smelting plant, used to return home covered with heavy dust that may or may not have been asbestos. Additionally, decedent had worked at that same plant for three years during his youth, and it was known asbestos was used at the plant, but there was no evidence presented that he had any hands-on exposure with asbestos products.
There was also question as to the great-grandson’s entitlement to damages as someone who was “supported” by decedent. It was true he lived in decedent’s home with him, as well as his parents, who rarely paid rent. He also sometimes paid for the child’s daycare, looked after him, bought him toys and other gifts. However, he was not listed as a dependent on decedent’s personal income taxes.
At trial, all three daughters provided emotional testimony regarding their relationship with their father and the impact his death had on them. All were close to him.
During closing arguments, plaintiff counsel made a number of emotionally-charged statements asserting defense knew it was poisoning workers and urged jurors to punish defense for this. Defense never objected to these statements.
Jurors unanimously agreed decedent’s asbestos exposure was caused by defendant’s predecessor and also found this to be a substantial factor in his death. Jurors awarded $60,000 in economic damages to decedent’s estate and an additional $130,500 to each daughter for economic damages. They also awarded a total of $2 million in non-economic damages to the surviving daughters.
Defendant BWMT was assigned 35 percent of the fault (with auto manufacturer assigned 40 percent and the smelting company 25 percent).
Further the jurors also found BWMT had acted with malice or oppression and awarded punitive damages. However, they did not find the great-grandson was entitled to damages because was not a dependent for more than one-half his support.
The appeals court affirmed in all but one respect: The punitive damages. The court ruled plaintiff’s evidence of defense financial condition was not sufficient to sustain the award. It was otherwise upheld.
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Soto v. BogWarner Morse TEC , Aug. 5, 2015, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Four
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Munn v. Hotchkiss Sch. – $41.5M Damage Award to be Weighed by a State Supreme Court, Aug. 3, 2015, Boca Raton Injury Lawyer Blog