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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

NJ Appellate Court Upholds $30.3 Million Mesothelioma Verdict

In an unpublished decision a NJ Court of Appeals upheld a $30.3 Million verdict in an asbestos case where the worker was exposed to asbestos fiber during summer employment during his youth. The court held that the standard of causation in a mesothelioma case permitted recovery where there was infrequent exposure to a small amount of fiber.

History
"Mark Buttitta was born in December 1952. He worked as a “parts picker” at the GM distribution warehouses in Edgewater and Englewood during the summers of 1971 to 1973, and during his winter breaks while matriculating at Colgate University. As a summer employee, Mark was also responsible for sweeping the warehouse floor at the end of the shift. Mark worked with his father, who had been employed by GM since the 1940’s. During the summer of 1971, Mark also worked with Frank Buttitta, Jr. (Frank, Jr.), his brother. 
"In his de bene esse deposition, played for the jury at trial, Mark testified that as a “parts picker,” he, along with fifty to seventy-five other employees, were responsible for filling orders for parts submitted to GM by automobile dealers. The picker would retrieve parts from open racks or bins located at various locations within the “very busy” warehouse and place them in a cart. Some parts were packaged in boxes and some were stored loose on shelves. If the parts were packaged in a box, the parts picker would open the box, check to make sure it contained the correct parts and the required quantity, and then either remove the part or reseal the box for transport to the shipping area. Brakes were packaged in boxes containing four units; to fill an order, a parts picker would often retrieve one set of brakes from a box. 
"Mark said that, on some days, he would pick as many as fifty brake shoes or pads and twenty-five clutch pads or assemblies. Frank Ripley (Ripley), who had worked with Frank, Jr. and Mark at the GM warehouse, confirmed that brakes and clutches, which then contained asbestos, were the most common products picked at the warehouse. 
"Mark, Frank, Jr., and Ripley described the warehouse as being very dusty, with thick layers of dust on the shelves, boxes, and automotive parts, which became airborne when disturbed. The air was “stagnant” and there was visible dust “in the air.” The warehouse had no windows and ventilation was poor. Mark wore street clothes to work; masks and respirators were not provided. He often returned home from work “covered with dust”; Frank said he came home covered in a “gray kind of dirt”; Ripley said that after a day working in the warehouse “you’d blow your nose in a handkerchief and you know there would be dust.” Mark did not see any warnings on the boxes. 

The frequency, regularity and proximity test
"The frequency, regularity and proximity test “’is not a rigid test with an absolute threshold level necessary to support a jury verdict.’” James, supra, 155 N.J. at 302 (quoting Tragarz v. Keene Corp., 980 F.2d 411, 420 (7th Cir. 1992)). “The phraseology should not supply ‘catch words’ [and] the underlying concept should not be lost.” Sholtis, supra, 238 N.J. Super. at 29. Tailoring causation to the facts and circumstances of the case, “[t]he frequency and regularity prongs become less cumbersome when dealing with cases involving diseases, like mesothelioma, which can develop after only minor exposures to asbestos fibers.” Tragarz, supra, 980 F. 2d at 420. Thus, exposure in this case must be considered in relation to the uncontradicted expert testimony establishing that mesothelioma is associated with the “smallest exposure” to asbestos and can develop from the cumulative effects of minimal and infrequent exposure. 
"Here, with regard to the frequency of exposure requirement, Mark worked for three summers and during his winter breaks at the GM warehouse. He was also exposed through his contact with his father who worked at GM. That rather brief work history must be considered in light of the nature of mesothelioma and the experts’ testimony that the disease can be contracted after infrequent exposure to asbestos. This was sufficient to establish the frequency of exposure. See Rotondo v. Keene Corp., 956 F.2d 436, 442 (3d Cir. 1992) (holding that plaintiff, who developed mesothelioma and had worked several months one summer in close proximity to asbestos, satisfied frequency, regularity, and proximity test). 
"Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to establish that Mark regularly worked in close proximity to asbestos-containing clutches, including those manufactured by Borg-Warner, to permit the issue of causation to go to the jury.