The Mississippi Supreme Court recently reversed a $1.1 million jury verdict of a widow of a former railroad worker. In Mississippi Valley Silica Company, Inc. v. Reeves, (Supreme Court of Mississippi, No. 2012-CA-01702-SCT, 2014 WL 1511304 (Miss. Apr. 17, 2014)), the plaintiff alleged that her husband, Robert Reeves, died of interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of the lungs, caused by exposure to products containing silica. The Court held that the plaintiff’s verdict cannot stand without direct evidence that the defendant sold silica sand to the decedent’s employer or that the decedent was actually exposed to the product for any significant period of time.
From 1947 to 1991, decedent Robert Reeves worked as a brakeman, and later as a conductor, for the Illinois Central Railroad. As a brakeman, Reeves was required to keep his head out of the window of the train while it was in motion to look for problems down the line. The plaintiff alleged that, as a result, “his [Reeves’] face was exposed to ‘a lot of sand, cinders and everything.’” Sand was evidently used for traction in breaking and to prevent train wheels from spinning when encountering steep grades. Reeves, who apparently did not wear respiratory protection, was allegedly exposed to dust and sand daily. He was also exposed to sandblasting.
In 2002, the decedent and others filed a multi-plaintiff case against numerous defendants, alleging that Reeves was afflicted with silicosis, a lung disease caused by exposure to crystalline silica. In 2006, the court dismissed the multi-plaintiff action without prejudice, holding that the plaintiffs were improperly joined and permitting the re-filing of separate lawsuits by individual plaintiffs. Reeves’ widow timely re-filed her lawsuit in 2007, amending the complaint to seek wrongful death and survival damages from his death in 2010. Notably, the decedent had previously filed a lawsuit for asbestosis damages, although in the subject case, he was seeking damages due only to “the silica component of the mixed-dust disease.”
At the May 2012 trial, the sole remaining defendant was Mississippi Valley Silica, Inc. (Valley). After the plaintiff presented her case, Valley filed a motion for directed verdict, which was denied. The jury found for the plaintiff, awarding economic damages in the amount of $149,464.40 and non-economic damages of $1.5 million, with Valley 15 percent at fault. In addition, the jury awarded punitive damages of $50,000, and the trial court awarded attorney fees of $257,701.50. Further, although Valley was found only 15 percent at fault, the trial court determined that the law in place in 2002, when the original multi-plaintiff action was filed, should apply. Accordingly, the statutory caps on punitive and non-economic damages enacted in 2004 were inapplicable, and Valley was jointly and severally liable for 50 percent of the judgment. Ultimately, the trial court determined that Valley owed the Reeves beneficiaries $824,732.20, plus $50,000 in punitive damages and $257,701.50 in attorney fees, for a total of $1,132,433.70.
Valley filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which was denied by the trial judge. On direct appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court, Valley argued that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support the jury’s $1.1 million verdict. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the plaintiff’s evidence at trial, including the decedent’s videotaped deposition and testimony by a former co-worker, did not establish that Illinois Central specifically used Valley silica sand for wheel traction or sandblasting, nor was Valley identified as the source of the silica sand that purportedly injured the decedent as a matter of law. While the plaintiff’s industrial hygienist testified that the decedent was exposed to silica for more than 1500 hours during the course of his employment at Illinois Central, the plaintiff failed to present any reliable product identification of Valley. There was no evidence of any invoices and no witnesses could testify that Valley sand was used on Illinois Central train cars. Thus, the decedent’s testimony that he had handled one bag of Valley sand in the 1970s, despite having worked for Illinois Central for over forty years, was insufficient to tie Valley to his silicosis. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and rendered judgment in favor of Valley.
The Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision in Reeves is a promising holding for product manufacturers defending lawsuits for personal injuries where product identification and causation testimony is lacking.