Written by Amber B. Garcia
In November 2020, a jury in Orleans Parish awarded a nearly $10.3 million dollar verdict to Henry Pete, a plaintiff who alleged exposure to asbestos caused his mesothelioma. The trial judge signed a judgment confirming to the jury’s verdict. One of the defendants appealed the judge denying its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and included three assignments of error, including the excessiveness of the general damage award. The Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the issue of quantum. On October 20, 2023, the Louisiana Supreme Court handed down its opinion.
The Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the issue of quantum. Specifically, the Court decided whether the court of appeal properly found no abuse of discretion in the jury’s award of approximately $10 million in general damages to Plaintiff, Henry Pete, who developed mesothelioma as a result of his exposure to asbestos.
In short, the Louisiana Supreme Court reduced the general damage award from $9,800,000 to $5,000,000. Together with the past medical expenses, the Court rendered judgment in the sum of $5,551,020.70.
The Louisiana Supreme Court held that an appellate court must consider relevant prior general damage awards as guidance in determining whether a trier of fact’s award is an abuse of discretion. Applying this principle to the Henry Pete case, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that the jury abused its discretion in awarding $9.8 million in general damages, finding that the evidence presented at trial does not support an award that far exceeds the highest reasonable awards in cases involving similar injuries. The Court went on to find $5 million is the highest amount that could reasonably be awarded.
As a reminder, the jury awarded $10,351,020.70 as follows:
- Past and future physician pain and suffering: $2,000,000
- Past and future mental pain and suffering: $2,300,000
- Past and future physical disability: $3,000,000
- Past and future loss of enjoyment of life: $2,500,000
- Past medical expenses: $551,020.70
Defendant, Ports America appealed, and the court of appeal affirmed. The court of appeal did not find that the jury abused its discretion in its award to Henry Peter and declined to disturb the jury’s award.
The Louisiana Supreme Court recognized that a jury has great discretion in awarding general damages but also recognized that the discretion is not unfettered. The Court went on to note that the abuse of discretion standard for appellate review lacks parameters, and the Court was compelled to find an approach that includes an element of objectivity.
The Court held that appellate courts must now look at past general damage awards for similar injuries in determining whether the trier of fact abused its much discretion. The Court reiterated that this was not the only parameter to be considered in evaluating whether a general damage award is an abuse of discretion, but to determine whether a trier of fact abused its discretion in its award for general damages, an appellate court is to consider the particular facts and circumstances of a case, in conjunction with a review of prior awards. This applies to claims of excessiveness as well as insufficiency in an award.
While we don’t think this case will set a cap of $5,000,000 on mesothelioma cases, it certainly makes clear that we must consider past awards. This will certainly impact how Plaintiffs now must value asbestos cases in Louisiana. The slippery slope, of course, is that we can see appellate courts reducing judgments as well as increasing judgments.