The New York Court of Appeals on Tuesday decided there was insufficient evidence to establish that Ford Motor Co. caused a mechanic’s mesothelioma, affirming a decision that reversed an $11 million jury verdict holding the auto manufacturer partly liable for his injuries.
The court said in a one-paragraph memorandum that the trial court’s decision tossing the jury’s verdict should be upheld based on the evidence, or lack thereof, presented during trial.
“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to establish that respondent Ford Motor Company’s conduct was a proximate cause of the decedent’s injuries pursuant to the standards set forth in Parker v. Mobil Oil,” the decision said.
In Parker, a service station employee linked his leukemia diagnosis to exposure to benzene in gasoline. In a 2006 decision, the Court of Appeals decided that plaintiffs needed to show evidence they had been exposed to levels of toxin that could have caused the disease.
That standard was before the high court Tuesday in its opinion siding with Ford in the lawsuit, which was brought by a former auto mechanic named Arthur Juni Jr. in 2012. Juni alleged that exposure to asbestos-containing Ford products during his time as an auto mechanic caused his mesothelioma.
J. Tracy Walker IV argued for Ford in the case before the Court of Appeals in October. Ford said in a statement it was pleased with the result.
Juni worked on Ford vehicles at Orange & Rockland utilities for more than four decades until 2009. He said he worked without a respirator that would have protected him from chrysotile asbestos fibers for his first 25 years at the company. He also claimed Ford recognized that some of its products would expose mechanics to the cancer-causing asbestos fibers.
Juni sued Ford, among others, in 2012 for damages after he developed mesothelioma. He died two years after bringing the lawsuit, but the litigation continued with his wife as the plaintiff. They called two expert witnesses to testify about the link between Ford’s products and Juni’s disease.
The jury in the trial ultimately awarded Juni’s estate $8 million for pain and suffering and his wife $3 million for her loss. Ford was responsible for 49 percent of that liability under the jury’s decision.
The auto manufacturer moved for the district court to set aside the jury’s verdict, arguing that the evidence presented by Juni’s attorneys at trial was insufficient to hold them liable for his mesothelioma. That motion was granted by the trial court and affirmed by the Appellate Division, First Department.
The only difference between the trial and appellate court decisions was the phrasing. The trial court wrote in its decision tossing the jury’s verdict that Juni’s attorneys had generally not established that his exposure to Ford’s products caused his mesothelioma. The Appellate Division’s decision mirrored more closely the decision in Parker, saying specifically that “a causation expert must still establish that the plaintiff was exposed to sufficient levels of the toxin from the defendant’s products to have caused his disease.”
Associate Judge Rowan Wilson wrote in a separate opinion concurring with the majority that his position affirmed the decision of the trial court without addressing the Appellate Division’s decision. He said Juni’s attorneys had not rebutted an argument from Ford during trial that the products he handled may not have been as dangerous as experts testified.
Juni worked with Ford and other so-called “friction” products, like brakes and clutches. Ford produced evidence at trial claiming that when those products are subject to high temperatures, the asbestos is converted into a substance less potent than chrysotile asbestos fibers. The plaintiffs did not have evidence contradicting those claims, Wilson wrote.
“Thus, a necessary link in the proof of proximate cause was missing,” Wilson wrote. “I do not suggest that Ford is correct as a scientific matter; that question remains for the trier of fact in each case. Here, in my view, there was simply a gap in proof as to the toxicity of the products at issue.”
Associate Judge Jenny Rivera wrote the only dissent. She argued that the only reason to throw out the jury’s verdict would be if it was determined to be “utterly irrational,” as decided in Campbell v. City of Elmira in 1994. Rivera wrote that the verdict in Juni’s case was not irrational based on the facts presented during trial.
“On a daily basis, he was exposed to asbestos-laden dust from new and used brakes, clutches, and manifold and engine gaskets,” Rivera wrote. “The jury also heard expert testimony that during the time of Mr. Juni’s exposure, Ford’s vehicle parts contained chrysotile asbestos, which had been linked to mesothelioma.”
“In light of the compelling evidence of Mr. Juni’s exposure to asbestos while working on Ford vehicles and products, I find no basis to conclude that the verdict was utterly irrational,” Rivera later wrote.
Juni was represented before the Court of Appeals by Alani Golanski, director of the appellate litigation unit at Weitz & Luxenberg, a Manhattan firm specializing in cases involving exposure to asbestos and other environmental toxins. Golanski did not immediately return a call for comment on Tuesday.
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Associate Judge Leslie Stein joined the memorandum decision. Associate Judges Michael Garcia and Paul Feinman did not take part in the decision. Feinman recused himself from the case because he was on the Appellate Division panel that heard the appeal before his appointment to the Court of Appeals.