Phillips v. Honeywell International, Inc.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting a letter, containing a remark showing callous indifference to worker death from asbestos, because the letter showed the employer was on notice of the risks of asbestos early, and prejudice from the callous remark was avoided by a jury instruction limiting consideration of the letter to the issue of notice only.  This decision affirms a $6 million judgment on a jury verdict in favor of the survivors of a man who contracted mesothelioma after working in the Bendix plant manufacturing brake pads containing asbestos in the period from 1967 forward.  The court did not abuse its discretion in admitting an explosive letter into evidence subject to a limiting instruction.  The letter, which attached an article that attributed cancers (though not mesothelioma) to asbestos and pointed to brakes as a possible source of asbestos fibers causing cancer, concluded by observing that “after having enjoyed a good life working with asbestos products, why not die from it.”  The letter was relevant because the jury could infer from it that the defendant was aware in 1967, when plaintiff began working for it, that asbestos in its products caused cancer and death or might do so, thus supporting plaintiff’s theory that defendant was negligent in having failed to further investigate that possible health risk.  The prejudice from the letter’s apparent callous disregard of life-threatening risks was adequately handled by a jury instruction telling the jury it could consider the letter only for the purpose of determining when the defendant became aware of asbestos’ health risks.  The court also did not err in admitting plaintiff’s expert’s testimony that each significant exposure to asbestos increased the risk of the plaintiff’s contracting mesothelioma.  That testimony was not the forbidden assertion that every exposure to asbestos, no matter how small, is a substantial factor in causing disease.

 

California Court of Appeal, Fifth District (Franson, J.); March 17, 2017; 2017 WL 1034389

 

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