Jury Awards $107 Million in Asbestos Mesothelioma Lawsuit
November 22, 2023
Los Angeles, CA
On July 11, a California jury awarded the family of a man who died of asbestos mesothelioma
more than $107 million. Joel Hernandezcueva, the father of four young children, died in 2014 from pleural mesothelioma, a terminal cancer that his treating physicians testified is caused only by asbestos exposure.
At work, Hernandezcueva's duties included cleaning up drywall debris and other rubbish from areas where E.F. Brady, a subcontractor, had installed the original drywall and fireproofing. While performing those duties, he inhaled asbestos-laden dust. In 2011, he was diagnosed as suffering from mesothelioma. He died three years later.
The award included economic damages of $2,806,044, non-economic damages (things like pain and suffering) of $29,530,000 and a whopping $75,000,000 in punitive damages against defendant Union Carbide Corporation, one of the defendants. The total award, especially the punitive damages portion, is likely to be challenged in further litigation.
Deadly exposure; tangled history
From 1992 or 1993 to 1995, Hernandezcueva worked as a janitor at a complex of buildings in Irvine, California owned by the Fluor Corporation. During the period of his employment, areas of the complex were remodeled, and certain walls within the complex were continuously under repair. He cleaned up the mess.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2011 and first tried in 2013. Two prior rulings favored the defendants, but in each case, appellate courts overturned the verdicts. When entered, the 2023 judgment may include tens of millions of dollars in interest.
Good news and bad news
Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals long used in building materials such as flooring, ceilings, roofing, automotive parts and other construction materials. It was commonly used in construction until the 1970s, when the Fluor complex was built. At the time, the perceived advantages of asbestos included:
- Fire resistance: Asbestos is highly resistant to heat and flames, making it a good material for fireproofing. It was often used in construction materials, such as roofing, insulation, and fire curtains;
- Strength: Asbestos is also very strong and durable, making it a good material for a variety of applications. It was used in products such as brake pads, clutch plates, and gaskets; and
- Low cost: Asbestos is relatively inexpensive to produce, making it a cost-effective material for many applications.
The bad news is that it is also highly carcinogenic.
Link between asbestos and mesothelioma
Mesothelioma, one of several deadly diseases linked to asbestos exposure, is a rare but highly aggressive cancer that occurs in the lining of internal organs known as the mesothelium. Occupational exposure to asbestos is the primary cause
of mesothelioma worldwide. In 2022, the disease killed roughly 12,431 people in the U.S. alone.
Nonetheless, as compelling as the evidence is, asbestos mesothelioma lawsuits can be hard to win. Many years may pass between the date of exposure and the development of symptoms. Asbestos can be a slow killer
. When mesothelioma patients die, they tend to die of many things.
The hard truth
Most patients die
from mesothelioma in stage 4, when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body and caused extensive damage. Late-stage cancer causes organs to fail, impairs the immune system, causes malnutrition and wasting, and can result in a coma. The actual cause of death at the end of mesothelioma is likely several factors, such as infections and organ failure.
No lawsuit can fix this, but successful asbestos mesothelioma lawsuits may be able to do two things:
- They may be able to help families deal with the cost and other burdens of health care; and
- Successful lawsuits may be able to help get grieving families back on a financial track.
Clouds on the horizon
Union Carbide has decried the jury award as, “not supported by the evidence at trial.” The punitive damage award, the company complains is “excessive, inconsistent with California law and unconstitutional."
According to California Civil Code section 3294
, punitive damages cannot exceed the greater of:
- Four times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff; or
- $10 million.
Exceptions to these limitations exist in cases involving malice, oppression or fraud.
The plaintiffs have previously argued that Union Carbide knew about the danger to health posed by asbestos dust, but did not disclose that risk to Hernandezcuevo and other workers. Instead, plaintiffs argue, the company calculated that the potential cost of lawsuits was outweighed by the potential for profit. The issue of malice will certainly figure prominently in any further lawsuits concerning the size of the award.