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Ford Loses Asbestos Appeal in Brake Product Exposure Case

Less than a week after OSHA slapped Ford Motor Company with a substantial government fine for failing to protect workers from the asbestos-laden products it continues to use, the company lost an appeal on another asbestos case.
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Our Boston mesothelioma lawyers have learned that Maryland’s highest court upheld a lower court’s ruling against the firm, awarding $15 million to the family of a woman who died of asbestos exposure from her husband’s work clothing.

Ford certainly isn’t the first to complain about the high cost of damage awards. But it’s worth noting that the $15 million figure was later “adjusted” to $745,000, split between her personal estate representative and two daughters. The cost of a mesothelioma patient’s medical care can easily surpass that in their last few years of life, as treatments are often intense and aggressive.

In this case, the plaintiff, who died before the case made its way to trial, had been diagnosed with mesothelioma. There was no dispute about the fact that her disease was a result of exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma is a rare and terminal cancer — the only known cause is asbestos exposure.

The primary issue here was the origin of the asbestos that killed her. There were two competing theories:

  • That she was sickened by constant contact with the asbestos dust that covered her husband’s work uniform when he was employed as a Ford brake manufacturer;
  • That she was sickened by the asbestos contained in a compound produced by Georgia-Pacific Corp., which the family used when they were building their home and also in some subsequent home improvement projects over the years.

The woman originally filed a lawsuit against both firms, alleging they had failed to warn of the dangers in their products. She died in 2009, but the case was carried on by her family as a wrongful death action.

The case, Dixon v. Ford Motor Company, eventually went on to a 12-day trial, after which the jury found the Ford products to be the only substantial contributing factor in her illness and death. Although the jury awarded $15 million in damages, the state’s statutory damages cap limited the actual amount received.

The trial court judge expressed a disagreement with the jury that Georgia-Pacific held no responsibility. As such, the judge entered a cross-claim judgment against Georgia-Pacific, to be paid to Ford.

Both companies appealed. The appellate court found that the lower court abused its discretion in allowing the testimony of a scientist who testified that short-fiber chrysotile asbestos contained in Ford products likely substantially contributed to the development of the plaintiff’s disease. Her theory, known as “probabilistic causation,” was rejected by the appellate court.

The case was then appealed to Maryland’s highest court. This time, the court found that the trial court didn’t err in allowing that expert testimony. First of all, the justices cited Eagle-Picher v. Balbos, in which the court had outright rejected the assertion that mesothelioma can’t be caused by chrysotile asbsetos. Secondly, the court indicated that the expert’s opinion that exposure to this type of asbestos in Ford’s brake pads could lead to mesothelioma is not a novel principle.

Still, the court disagreed with trial court’s decision to enter a cross-claim against Georgia-Pacific, and reversed that aspect of the earlier ruling, leaving Ford solely responsible for the damages.

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with mesothelioma in Boston, call for a free and confidential appointment at 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:
Md. high court rules against Ford in lawsuit over asbestos from brake products, July 25, 2013, By Jessica M. Karmasek, Legal Newsline
More Blog Entries:
OSHA Cites Ford for Asbestos Violations at Auto Plant, July 22, 2013, Boston Mesothelioma Lawyer Blog