On June 10, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to accept the appeal of a case dealing with the duty of ship owners, under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (33 U.S.C. §§ 901, et seq.), to intervene in protecting the safety of shipyard workers. The court’s decision not to review the case means that a January decision of the Virginia Supreme Court that vacated a $17.5 million verdict against ExxonMobil Corp. and remanded the case back to the Virginia trial court will stand.
The case began in 2009 when plaintiff Rubert Minton, a former commercial vessels repair supervisor at a Newport News, Virginia, shipyard, filed suit against Exxon under the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. In his suit, Minton alleged that Exxon, whose ships contained asbestos, was negligent in allowing him and other workers to be exposed to the asbestos found on Exxon’s ships. Following a trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff $12 million in compensatory damages, $12.5 million in punitive damages, and medical expenses of $430,964. Because the plaintiff had only sought $5 million in punitive damages, the trial judge reduced the $12.5 million punitive damage award by $7.5 million.
Exxon appealed the trial decision to the Virginia Supreme Court arguing, in part, that the trial court erred in prohibiting Exxon from introducing evidence of the shipyard’s knowledge of the danger of asbestos and the shipyard’s intent and ability to remedy the danger. In its decision, the Virginia Supreme Court held that there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that Exxon bore responsibility for the plaintiff’s asbestos exposure. However, the court nevertheless agreed with Exxon “that evidence tending to show the Shipyard’s knowledge of the danger and its ability and intent to remedy the danger is relevant” and should have been allowed. The court believed the jury may have rendered a different verdict had such evidence been presented to the jury.
The Virginia Supreme Court decision established precedent that the duty of ship owners to intervene to protect shipyard workers may be mitigated where the shipyard owner has “the knowledge, intent, or ability” to protect such workers. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to review the decision, that precedent is firmly established in Virginia and may be used to persuade courts in other jurisdictions to decide similarly.