Selected Case Summaries – Products Liability
Beeman v. Manville & Keene (1991)
Joe worked as a journeyman plumber and pipe-fitter for three decades. Joe breathed asbestos fibers into his lungs from 1953 until at least 1972. Documents from the asbestos manufacturers indicated that the companies knew, by at least the 1930s, that asbestos could kill people who worked with it regularly. They concealed that information from the public. Workers like Joe Beeman were exposed to asbestos every day on the job and were not warned of the danger or provided with protective equipment. By 1965, medical studies showed with certainty that asbestos caused asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the internal organs. Even then, the manufacturers issued no warnings. As a result, Joe and other construction laborers continued to work unprotected every day. Joe was diagnosed with asbestosis by the time of trial, but had not yet missed any work. The jury returned a verdict against asbestos manufacturer Keene for actual damages of $1.175 million and punitive damages of $5 million and awarded a lesser amount against Johns Manville. The trial court set aside the $5 million in punitive damages. At the time of this verdict, the lower trial court could not decrease punitives damages, but could only accept or reject the amount awarded by the jury. That rule has since changed.
At trial, we proved that as a result of Joe’s exposure to asbestos, his life expectancy was reduced by about twelve years. Even though no Iowa court had permitted an award of compensatory damages for lost life expectancy, we submitted that element to the jury, which awarded $600,000. Subsequently, the trial court eliminated that element of damages. We appealed both decisions of the trial court which reduced Joe’s damages. The Defendants also appealed on numerous grounds. The Supreme Court refused to accept lost life expectancy as an element of compensatory damages and refused to reinstate the jury’s award of punitive damages. The Supreme Court also said, however, that even though Joe did not have cancer, evidence that he feared that he would get it was admissible and compensable. The remainder of the verdict, with interest, was affirmed. 496 N.W. 2d 247 (Iowa 1993).
Trenton Freeman v. Honda (2000)
Trenton Freeman was eighteen years old on July 31, 1998. He was an athlete and a handsome, popular, and friendly high school student. He and family and friends planned a trip to the motorcycle races in Brainerd, Minnesota on July 31, 1998. Trenton was in the rear passenger side seat. The driver hit a curb and then a pole and the car burst into flames, killing one young man and burning Trenton over 75% of his body. He was hospitalized for nearly a year, undergoing dozens of surgeries. He also had reconstructive surgery at Shriners Hospital. Trenton’s total medical costs were more than $1.5 million. Trenton remains significantly disabled by his burn injuries to his hands and arms. He also has disfiguring scars on his face and body.
Trenton sued Honda for design defects in the vehicle, including faulty placement of the gasoline tank partially outside the frame rails and construction of inadequate materials. Also, the design of the car was defective because it actually placed the burning fuel inside the occupant compartment directly below where Trenton was seated. Trenton settled his case for a confidential amount.
Greg Rager v. Sapp Bros. Petroleum, Inc. and Garold M. Smith Oil & LP Co. (2007)
Greg Rager came home from his job as assistant manager of Hy-Vee at about midnight. He had a snack on the porch of his rented country home, and lit a cigarette as he came through the door. The house exploded in a huge ball of fire. Greg was thrown about fifty feet away. He remained conscious until he arrived at the hospital. The doctors did not hold out much hope for his survival, but family and friends rallied and prayed and Greg’s sense of humor returned quickly, even though he was unable to speak for months. He had dozens of surgeries, and remained hospitalized for many months. Even though he has terrible scars and significant limitation of motion, he returned to work at Hy-Vee on a part time basis.
This terrible explosion was the result of a leak of propane gas into the soil around the house. Greg and his roommate could smell the gas and called for assistance, but when the service person came, he did not check for the location of any leak and did not use his available equipment to insure that the home was safe.
After years of discovery, we settled the case for a confidential amount. Tom Duff of the Duff Law Firm was co-counsel in this case.