Bethesda, MD Office: 301-718-4548 |

Delaware Justices Order Another Look at $40M Verdict in Ford Asbestos Case

/19 Dec 2019
/By admin

asbestos lawyersFord Motor Co. will have another chance to challenge its share of Delaware’s largest asbestos verdict since 2005, after the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that a lower court judge failed to properly consider whether a jury’s award of $40.6 million in compensatory damages was excessive.

A three-judge panel of the high court found that Superior Court Judge Ferris W. Wharton incorrectly looked to Ford’s $8 million liability instead of assessing the total damages award in deciding whether the payout to the wife of a deceased automotive repair shop owner was too high.

The ruling sent the case back to Superior Court Judge Wharton to decide whether the more than $40 million verdict was warranted.  If not, the high court said, it would be up to Wharton to either lower it or to grant a new trial on damages.

Ford was the only one of 18 defendants to be tried on claims that it had failed to warn about the danger of asbestos in its products.  Larry Knecht, who filed the lawsuit in 2014, died of mesothelioma before the case went to trial in May 2018. According to his widow, Paula Knecht, he was exposed to asbestos dust for decades while working in his Los Alamos, New Mexico automotive shop.

During the course of his work, Knecht was exposed to asbestos in various products from many different manufacturers, and the company argued that the plaintiff could not point to specific Ford-made parts that had caused his illness.

But following a 16-day trial, the jury found Ford responsible for 20% of the overall compensatory damages awarded to Knecht and tacked on an additional $1 million in punitive damages, bringing its total liability to about $9.1 million.

Ford, which said it was the largest asbestos verdict from the Superior Court in nearly two decades, filed a pair of post-trial motions, asking Wharton to approve a new trial limited to damages.  The judge, however, denied both motions and upheld Ford’s share of the damages.

On appeal, Ford said that the payout was “off the charts,” compared to similar results in comparable cases, and argued that the sheer size indicated that the jury may have been swayed by sympathy for Knecht and his widow.

“The amount is large enough to indicate it was based on bias, passion, or prejudice—not a measured consideration of the evidence.  The compensatory award should be set aside, and a new trial on damages should be ordered or the amount should be remitted,” Ford’s lawyers said.

In a seven-page opinion, Supreme Court Justice James T. Vaughn Jr. agreed with Ford that a defendant’s share of the ultimate fault was not relevant to the question of whether the compensatory damages were reasonable.

“The Superior Court should have decided whether the jury’s compensatory damages verdict of $40,625,000 was excessive.  Its decision to focus on Ford’s reduced share of damages of $8,125,000 was error,” Vaughn said.

The Superior Court’s decision on remand is likely to determine how much Knecht will receive for the loss of her husband.  Ford did not challenge punitive damages in the case, and is set to pay at least $1 million, pending further action by the court.

Thanks to our friends from Murphy & Landon Injury Attorneys for their insight into personal injury law.