Oral argument in silica case March 17, 2014

Mississippi Valley Silica Company, Inc. v. Gwendolyn M. Reeves – The Missisippi Supreme Court will hear oral argument in this silica case out of Jones County on March 17, 2014. 

 Issues are as follow: 1) the plaintiff failed to prove that portion of damages due to silica alone; 2)  plaintiff failed to prove causation by silica or by the defendant; 3) failure to prove her failure-to-warn claim; 4) whether plaintiff’s employer and not the defendant was solely liable; 5) whether the trial court erred in awarding punitive damages and attorneys fees; 6) whether the court erred in imposing joint and several liability; 7) whether the court should have capped non economic and punitive damages and 8) whether a remittitur should have been ordered. 

Mississippi Valley Silica’s brief

Reeves’ brief

Reeves filed a silicosis lawsuit in 2007 against 32 defendants. He died in 2010 and his wrongful death beneficiary was substituted. At trial, there was a single remaining defendant, Miss. Valley. The jury found economic damages of $1489,464.40 with Valley 15% at fault, Clark Sand at 15% at fault, Reeves with 1% and “others” at 69%. The jury found $1.5 million in punitives against Miss. Valley. “However, the trial court in its final judgment held that the 2002 version of Miss. Code Ann. S 85-5-7 applied to the verdict, and that the 2004 statutory caps on punitive and noneconomic damages did not apply; it thus held Valley liable for 50% of the verdict, $B24,732.20plus the punitive-damages award, for a total judgment of $874,732.20.”

Reeves claimed to suffer from mixed-dustpneumoconiosis caused by a combination of exposures to asbestos and silica. He had previously filed an asbestos suit and thus to avoid the issue of claim-splitting he stipulated that the jury would be asked to confine its findings to “the silica component of the mixed-dust disease.” Reeves had worked as a brakeman and then a conductor at Illinois Central Railroad. He claimed that the engine he rode on as a brakeman had a braking system that sprayed sand on the tracks to prevent the train from slipping and this is how he inhaled sand. He also claimed to recall that bags of this sand were marked with the names of Clark Sand Co. and of Mississippi Valley Silica Co. He was not diagnosed with silicosis until after his death.

On a related note: This reminds me of 3M v. Johnson, a case wherein several janitors sued for asbestosis and obtained a $25 million verdict even though they had never been diagnosed with asbestosis until just before the litigation and had never lost a day of work to asbestosis. It was reversed on appeal. However, one of the defendants was an employee-owned spin-off of Armstrong. It was unable to put up a bond for the appeal and declared bankruptcy after the verdict. Which is one reason I think we have plaintiffs’ lawyers, in large part, to thank for tort reform.

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