(Adds Union Carbide claim in third paragraph.)
July 13 (Bloomberg) -- A $322 million jury verdict against Dow Chemical Co.’s Union Carbide unit and Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. was put on hold while the Mississippi Supreme Court considers whether the trial judge should be disqualified.
Union Carbide claims Circuit Court Judge Eddie Bowen, who presided in the Raleigh, Mississippi, trial over a former oil worker’s claim he was sickened by asbestos, should have bowed out of the case because the judge’s father suffered from asbestosis, a disease caused by the mineral.
Union Carbide said the companies were denied a fair trial. Bowen might be biased, the company said in its petition to the state high court, citing his father’s illness, “improper comments on the evidence,” and rulings during the trial.
The May 4 award is the largest ever made to a single asbestos case plaintiff, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. A state punitive-damages cap would erase at least $260 million.
The Mississippi court stopped proceedings in the case in an order signed by Chief Justice William L. Waller Jr. The ruling means the award won’t be enforced until the allegations are resolved.
“If there’s a disqualification, you would have to retry it with a different judge,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor in Virginia. “That’s the way most courts would handle it.” The state Supreme Court might reject the motion to disqualify the judge, he said..
The plaintiff, Thomas Brown, developed asbestosis after being exposed to the toxic fibers while mixing drilling mud on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. He said Union Carbide and Chevron Phillips Chemical knew asbestos is toxic and didn’t warn him. Brown is on oxygen 24 hours a day, said his attorney, D. Allen Hossley.
Chevron Phillips Chemical is a joint venture of Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips.
The jury verdict included $300 million in punitive damages, awarded equally against Union Carbide and Chevron Phillips Chemical. Mississippi law would limit the punitive award to $40 million, or $20 million per defendant.
The judge didn’t respond immediately to a message left in his chambers.
Bowen’s father settled claims with asbestos defendants, including Union Carbide, the company’s filing said.
“If this is not an appearance of impropriety, I don’t know what an appearance of impropriety is,” W.G. Watkins, a Union Carbide lawyer, said in an interview.
While the judge’s father was involved in asbestos litigation, “it happened 20 years ago and neither defendant was ever sued,” Hossley, Brown’s attorney, said today in a phone interview. “Everybody got a fair trial.”
Watkins said company lawyers are investigating whether the judge had other possible conflicts. Yesterday’s ruling is a “statement that the Supreme Court takes the recusal seriously,” he said.
The case is Brown v. Phillips Co., 2006-196, Circuit Court, Smith County, Mississippi (Raleigh).
--Editors: Charles Carter, Fred Strasser
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