The first jury trial in the Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans since the COVID-19 pandemic was an asbestos case before Judge Ethel Simms Julien. On November 4, 2020, the jury returned a $10.3 million dollar verdict.
Plaintiff, Henry Pete, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2019, and he filed suit against numerous entities alleging exposure to asbestos. Mr. Pete, who was 74 at the time of trial, worked as a longshoreman from 1964 to 1968 at the Port of New Orleans, unloading cargo, including raw asbestos. Mr. Pete also alleged secondhand exposure to asbestos from 1964 until 1968, when he helped his mother launder his father’s work clothes. Mr. Pete’s father was also a longshoreman at the Port of Orleans. There was no evidence to corroborate Mr. Pete’s testimony that he worked at the Port of Orleans. He testified that he was paid in cash during his time at the Port, as an explanation as to why there are no records evidencing same. Plaintiff’s counsel produced a W-2 tax form from Mr. Pete’s father’s employment at the Port of Orleans, which they argued supported Mr. Pete’s claims. However, there were no similar records as to Mr. Pete.
The three remaining defendants at trial were Ports America Gulfport, Inc. f/k/a Atlantic & Gulf, James Flanagan/New Orleans Stevedores, and SSA Gulf. Cooper/T. Smith settled prior to trial, though they remained on the jury verdict form.
Henry Pete’s Social Security records showed that he worked on the river for CTS, the same company his father – a lifetime longshoreman, spent most of his time working. The records failed to show employment with the three-remaining trial defendants. There was no evidence to corroborate Mr. Pete’s testimony that he worked for any of the trial defendants. SSA Gulf and James J. Flanagan received defense verdicts. Defendants were successful in proving the liability of empty-chairs CTS and South African Marine.
Gary Dimuzio and Mike Hibey of Simmons Hanly Conroy tried the case for Plaintiffs. Lindsey Cheek of The Cheek Law Firm was local counsel.
The trial lasted for three weeks. Jurors deliberated for about 2.5 hours prior to reaching a verdict for Plaintiff.
Jurors and attorneys in the courtroom practiced social distancing guidelines during the trial and many witnesses testified virtually. During the three weeks of trial, it is reported that there were many technological issues, causing minor delays.
Jury selection included full voir dire, only taking a few days to fully seat a jury despite all the precautions in place due to COVID-19.