Case Style: Rubert "Bert" Minton v. Exxon Mobil
Judge: Timothy Fisher
Court: Newport News Virgina Circuit Court (Warwick County)
Plaintiff's Attorney: Robert "Bobbby" Hatten, Patten, Wornom, Hatten & Diamonstein, Newport News, Virginia
Description: "Newport News -- A Newport News Circuit Court jury on Thursday hit oil giant Exxon Mobil with a $25 million verdict in an asbestos lawsuit brought by a former shipyard worker -- among the largest jury verdicts ever handed down in a Virginia personal injury case.
Rubert "Bert" Minton, 72, of the Carrollton section of Isle of Wight County, was a repair supervisor on commercial vessels at Newport News Shipbuilding between 1966 and 1977, and had previously worked there for seven years as a ship fitter in new construction.
During his time at the shipyard, Minton worked on 17 Exxon commercial oil tankers then being repaired.
Decades later, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly asbestos-related cancer that doctors said he got from breathing billions of asbestos fibers while at the yard. He has a life expectancy of about two more years and faces a painful death, his lawyer said. He sued Exxon in late 2009.
After a nearly three-week trial in Newport News Circuit Court before Judge Timothy Fisher, the seven-member jury began deliberating Wednesday morning, reaching a verdict Thursday morning.
"Exxon got a good, old-fashioned horse whipping is what it is," said Hatten, who was at Al Fresco's restaurant Thursday afternoon celebrating with about 35 staffers and attorneys from his law firm, Patten, Wornom, Hatten and Diamonstein.
But the $25 million verdict will be automatically reduced to about $17.5 million, Hatten said. That's because although the jury awarded $12.5 million in punitive damages, it was legally limited to the $5 million that Hatten had requested for that portion of the verdict.
"They awarded two-and-a-half times what I asked for," Hatten said, saying he had not previously seen punitive damages of more than $100,000 in an asbestos case. "That shows how upset they were at Exxon."
Exxon Mobil is expected to appeal the entire verdict -- a process that Hatten said could go on for more than two years before a final judgment. After subracting out the firm's litigation costs, Minton stands to get about two-thirds of any final judgment, with the firm getting the other one-third.
Asbestos, made with microscopic fibers with heat-resistant properties, was used heavily on ships for decades, for such things as insulation, gaskets, seals and pumps.
Suits against ship owners -- rather than makers of asbestos-laden shipboard parts -- is a recent twist in local asbestos litigation. Most of the dozens of cases brought annually here are against parts makers. Shipyards are immune from worker asbestos suits, on the basis that the yards pay out worker's compensation claims.
The suit against Exxon contended that the oil giant had known about the problems with asbestos -- developing rules to protect workers at refineries beginning in the 1930s -- but took no steps to warn shipyard workers or crewmembers. They learned about a cancer link in the following decades, Hatten said.
Exxon contends that the shipyard -- not Exxon -- was responsible for worker safety. It has in the past argued that there was no firm evidence workers were exposed to asbestos on the Exxon ships. The company said it's "disappointed" in the verdict.
"We relied on Newport News (shipyard) and its personnel to ensure repair activities were safely carried out," Exxon spokesman Ray Botto said. "We believe that the protective practices ... at the time represented the best measures available."
He said Exxon is "evaluating our post-trial options, including appeal."
It was the second time Hatten's firm had squared off against Exxon and Bill Armstrong, a privately hired attorney from Oakland, Calif. The first time, in 2009, the jury awarded no damages -- the first time in decades Hatten lost an asbestos trial.
"I was more prepared this time," Hatten said. "I knew all of his tricks Â… He got me once, but he wasn't going to get me twice."
Hatten said that Minton had major lung operations in 2009 to help treat the cancer. That increased Minton's expectancy from the time of the operation from 18 months to between three and five years, Hatten said. "
Outcome: Plaintiff's verdict for $25 million. The jury awarded Minton $12 million in compensatory damages, $12.5 million in punitive damages, and $430,961 in medical expenses, plus interest.