New Orleans Jury Awards $10.3M In Asbestos Cancer Case

By Sarah Jarvis
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Law360 (November 5, 2020, 9:09 PM EST) -- A New Orleans jury has awarded more than $10.3 million to a former longshoreman who was diagnosed with mesothelioma last year after unloading raw asbestos from ships in the 1960s, finding that two stevedoring companies and a shipping company contributed to the development of his disease.

Tuesday's verdict awarded Henry Pete more than $10.35 million in his suit accusing various companies of contributing to his illness while he worked at various wharfs around New Orleans from 1964 until 1968. The jury found that Ports America Gulfport Inc., Cooper T. Smith Stevedoring Co. Inc. and South African Marine Corp. each substantially contributed to Pete's development of lung cancer.

Pete had alleged he was exposed to asbestos while loading and unloading cargo and while working with products and equipment containing asbestos. He said he was also exposed through contact with the clothing of his deceased father, who also worked as a longshoreman.

Pete said the companies should have known about the dangers of asbestos exposure, but instead of warning Pete or his father about the dangers, they "ignored or concealed such information, or condoned such concealment, in order to sell or use asbestos or asbestos-containing products and to avoid litigation by those who were injured from asbestos inhalation."

Pete's award from the jury includes $2 million for past and future physical pain and suffering, $2.3 million for past and future mental pain and suffering, $3 million for past and future physical disability, $2.5 million for past and future loss of enjoyment of life and more than $551,000 for past medical expenses.

Pete's counsel said he testified during trial that he was heartbroken to learn of his diagnosis, saying he feared that he "might go to sleep one day and not wake up." He also testified that African American workers like himself were commonly assigned the most dangerous and dirtiest jobs, adding that no one told him the cargo was dangerous, his counsel said.

Gary DiMuzio of Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC, counsel for Pete, told Law360 that it meant a lot for Pete to have his day in court. Pete lives in Houston now but was born and raised in New Orleans, he said.

Given his health conditions, Pete knows he won't be around to directly get the fruits of the verdict, DiMuzio said, but "he felt like he got to tell his story, and have people in Orleans Parish believe what he said to them."

DiMuzio said the companies argued that they didn't handle asbestos, and that even if they did, Pete didn't work for them.

Counsel for Ports America Gulfport Inc. did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Cooper T. Smith Stevedoring Co. Inc. and South African Marine Corp. were not defendants at trial, DiMuzio said.

DiMuzio also noted that the coronavirus pandemic and multiple hurricanes delayed the trial, adding that after various technical difficulties with jury setups, jurors wore masks and sat socially distanced in the gallery of a courtroom during trial. While he said it was strange to not face the jurors directly, he said the setup was a good compromise.

In their verdict, jurors did not find liable two other companies, James J. Flanagan Shipping Corp. and SSA Gulf Inc.

Lynn Luker of Stanley Reuter Ross Thornton & Alford LLC, trial counsel for James J. Flanagan, said she attributes the jury finding of no liability for her client to the company's "long-standing policy never to bid on or work asbestos cargo and the company's proof that it handled coffee cargo from Colombia for nearly 40 years."

Counsel for SSA Gulf Inc. declined to comment on Thursday.

Pete is represented by Gary DiMuzio, Michael K. Hibey, Melissa Crowe Schopfer and Jean-Michel LeCointre of Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC and Lindsey A. Cheek and Jeanne L. St. Romain of the Cheek Law Firm LLC.

SSA Gulf Inc. is represented by Robert E. Williams IV of Sulzer & Williams LLC and Richard P. Salloum of Franke & Salloum PLLC.

Ports America Gulfport Inc. is represented by Jacques DeGruy, Courtney Crowell and Janet W. Marshall of Pusateri Johnston Guillot & Greenbaum and James M. Garner and Peter L. Hilbert Jr. of Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert LLC.

James J. Flanagan Shipping Corp. is represented by Lynn Luker and Bryan C. Reuter of Stanley Reuter Ross Thornton & Alford LLC.

The case is Henry Pete v. Boland Marine and Manufacturing Co. LLC et al., case number 19-10545, in the Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans, State of Louisiana.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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