When an American business is accused of injuring dozens or hundreds of people in the same or similar ways, often one person’s case is chosen to go to trial first. This is called a “bellwether trial” because the results usually show how the rest of the lawsuits will go.
Asbestos bellwether trial verdict goes in plaintiff’s favor
A recent bellwether trial against a workers’ compensation insurance company went very well for former workers of a Montana vermiculite mine. The jury awarded the worker, who suffers from asbestosis from his time in the mine, $36.5 million in damages. The award includes $6 million in compensatory damages, plus $20 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are for especially bad cases of negligence when the jury believes the defendant needs special punishment for its reckless disregard for the plaintiff’s safety.
The plaintiff’s story
The man sued Maryland Casualty Co., an insurance company that covered the mine’s workers’ comp claims from 1963-73. Recently, it came to light that by the late ’60s, Maryland Casualty knew that working in the mine exposed workers to asbestos. Rather than recommending that the mine owner protect workers, Maryland Casualty suggested taking steps to cover up the facts.
The plaintiff worked for the mine for about 18 months in 1968 and ’69. He first developed breathing problems around 1990. Today, he requires constant use of an oxygen tank to breathe. His success at trial could mean the more than 800 other ex-mine workers suing Zurich Insurance, which bought Maryland Casualty, could all have strong cases too. It could encourage Zurich Insurance to settle with the remaining plaintiffs at reasonable compensation levels.