Fears Of Virus And Distracted Jury Won't Stop Asbestos Trial

By Hannah Albarazi
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Law360, San Francisco (August 11, 2020, 6:05 PM EDT) -- A California judge declined Tuesday to postpone an impending San Francisco jury trial in an asbestos suit against Honeywell International and others, overruling defense attorneys' concerns that in-person trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic are unsafe and that remote jurors can be inattentive as they juggle home life and jury service.

Defense attorneys urged San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn to suspend Gary and Karen Garrison's jury trial against more than a dozen companies over occupational exposure to asbestos until it is safe to hold it in person, spelling out for the judge the potential problem of remote jurors multitasking during court proceedings.

Lindsay Weiss of Manning Gross & Massenburg LLP, counsel for defendant Temporary Plant Cleaners Inc., told the judge that not only is it dangerous for attorneys, the court staff, experts, witnesses and jurors to come into the courthouse — as they did for Tuesday's hearing — it's also not feasible to do the trial completely remotely.

She said across the San Francisco Bay, in Alameda County, jurors appearing remotely there have been seen working out, cooking and doing childcare during court proceedings. She said attentive jurors are a crucial part of a fair trial and that must not be compromised.

"I believe it is not a fair process," Weiss told the judge.

But Judge Kahn rejected the defendants' motion to continue the Garrisons' trial, saying he saw no other way to proceed except to start preparing for a jury trial.

Part of the urgency appears to be Gary Garrisons' health condition.

Gary and Karen Garrison filed suit in May 2019 alleging Gary suffered permanent injuries as a result of occupational exposure to asbestos fibers.

The defendants — which include Honeywell, Scott Technologies, Goodyear and O'Reilly Auto Enterprises, among others — intentionally concealed from the public the health risks posed by asbestos and were financially motivated to do so, the family alleges.

The companies negligently exposed Gary Garrison to asbestos causing him permanent injuries, according to the suit.

A rigorous review of the epidemiological data shows that all types of asbestos fibers are causally implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death, the Garrisons say, noting that since the 1960s the scientific evidence linking occupational and environmental asbestos exposure to lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma has become "overwhelming."

The "mainstream scientific and medical community is in consensus that exposure to asbestos at current regulatory levels results in excess incidence of mesothelioma and that any occupational or para-occupational exposure to asbestos — even that described as low-level or brief in duration must be regarded as causal in an individual with clinical mesothelioma," the Garrisons said in their complaint.

As a result of exposure to asbestos fibers, Gary Garrison says he has suffered lung cancer, pleural disease, asbestosis and lung damage, as well as emotional distress. He says the injuries have also left him with medical bills and loss of income.

The Garrisons are seeking punitive damages.

According to the Garrisons, the companies' conduct was "willful, malicious, fraudulent, outrageous and in conscious disregard and indifference" to the safety of those exposed.

On Tuesday, Judge Khan attempted to push forward with the trial logistics, working with the attorneys to come up with the best ways to carry out a jury trial in the time of COVID-19.

The parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The Garrisons are represented by Alan Richard Brayton and David R. Donadio of Brayton Purcell LLP.

Temporary Plant Cleaners is represented by Lindsay Weiss and Abigail P. Adams of Manning Gross & Massenburg LLP.

Scott Technologies Inc. is represented by Nicolas P. Martin and B. Gardiner Mckleroy of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP.

Honeywell Technologies is represented by Alice Wong of McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

The case is Gary Garrison et al. v. Honeywell International Inc. et al., case number CGC19276790, in the Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco.

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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