NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey, January 29, 2019 – A jury in Middlesex County, New Jersey awarded $2.38 million to the widow of a manufacturing plant worker who died of mesothelioma after years of working with raw asbestos mined, marketed, and distributed by chemical giant Union Carbide Corporation. Willis Edenfield, who worked as a chemical compounder in Bloomfield, NJ from 1954 to 1994, died in 2011 at the age of 75 due to complications with his treatment for mesothelioma. His wife, Thomasina Fowler, filed a wrongful death and survival action against Union Carbide later that year, alleging that the bags in which Union Carbide shipped and sold its raw asbestos failed to provide an adequate warning of the hazards of asbestos and that its asbestos was a substantial factor in causing Mr. Edenfield’s mesothelioma.
Mrs. Fowler was represented by Amber Long and Daniel Weiss of Levy Konigsberg, LLP. Union Carbide was represented by Scott Masterson of Lewis Brisbois, Craig Woods of Mayer Brown, and Rich Picini of Caruso, Smith, Picini, PC. The case was initially dismissed by the judge for lacking sufficient evidence to go to trial. Attorneys at Levy Konigsberg LLP sought a review of the judge’s ruling by the New Jersey Appellate Division, which overturned the lower court and reinstated Mrs. Fowler’s case. After several years of delay, the trial began in Mrs. Fowler’s case on December 3, 2018, and continued until January 22, 2019, when the jury reached a verdict in her favor.
A big question for the jury and one that the lower court was initially unconvinced could be answered, was whether Mr. Edenfield was exposed to Union Carbide asbestos. Although there was no direct evidence showing Mr. Edenfield had worked with Union Carbide’s asbestos, co-worker testimony describing Mr. Edenfield’s duties at the facility and the way the facility operated, taken together with documents describing what ingredients were used by the facility to manufacture its products, was enough for the jury to infer that Mr. Edenfield was exposed to Union Carbide’s asbestos.
Specifically, over the course of the five-week trial, the evidence showed that Mr. Edenfield worked the only shift of the day mixing various dry raw ingredients for use in the products that the plant manufactured and that Union Carbide had shipped over 50,000 lbs of its asbestos to the facility during the years that Mr. Edenfield worked as a chemical compounder there. In addition, usage records from the facility showed how much and how often Union Carbide’s asbestos was used in the products that were manufactured there.
The jury also found that Union Carbide had failed to adequately warn Mr. Edenfield of the hazards of its asbestos, though Union Carbide had put a warning label on its bags since 1968 and had provided information about the hazards of its asbestos to Mr. Edenfield’s employer.
Union Carbide’s attorneys asserted a number of defenses to escape liability. First, it argued that the evidence was not clear enough to show that Mr. Edenfield was, in fact, exposed to its asbestos. Second, it argued that, even if he were exposed, Union Carbide’s asbestos could not have been a substantial factor in causing Mr. Edenfield’s mesothelioma because its asbestos—which it claimed was pure, short-form chrysotile—was unable to cause the disease, and that his exposure to other chrysotile asbestos mined in Canada was, in fact, the cause. Third, Union Carbide argued that it sufficiently warned Mr. Edenfield of the hazards of its asbestos because it put a label on the bag and provided information about the hazards to Mr. Edenfield’s employer.
Although the jury found that Union Carbide took reasonable steps to ensure that its warning had reached Mr. Edenfield, it did not find that warning adequately inform Mr. Edenfield of the hazards of asbestos exposure. The evidence showed that Union Carbide knew asbestos exposure could cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, but had failed to warn about either disease. In addition, internal documents at Union Carbide described its initial warning on its bags as “weak” and “the most innocuous” they could devise, and noted that a stronger warning could cause trouble with unions and would be fatal to their business.
Finally, the jury found that exposure to Union Carbide’s asbestos was, in fact, a substantial factor in causing Mr. Edenfield’s mesothelioma. Although Union Carbide’s expert witnesses testified that its asbestos could not cause the disease, the jury was presented with Union Carbide’s 1984 Material Safety Data Sheet that stated that its asbestos could cause mesothelioma, as well as various publications from various organizations such as the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which were at odds with the testimony from Union Carbide’s expert witnesses.
The case was tried before Judge Vicomi of the Middlesex County Superior Court in New Brunswick, NJ.