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Governo and DePalo Secure Defense Verdict in Massachusetts' First Ever Joint Asbestos-Tobacco Trial

In a trial that drew nationwide attention, Smith Duggan attorneys, David Governo and Vincent DePalo, secured a defense verdict for their client, Hampden Automotive Sales Corporation, in the first Massachusetts joint asbestos-tobacco trial. The jury returned a verdict against co-defendant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for $43.1 million.

The plaintiff, Joanna Summerlin, sued several brake companies, as well as R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris USA. All of the brake companies except Hampden settled before trial. The plaintiff claimed that her husband’s work with asbestos-containing brakes and his fifty-three-year smoking history caused his lung cancer and death.

Louis Summerlin, the plaintiff’s husband, worked as a mechanic from 1959 until 1984. He allegedly installed thousands of Hampden brakes between 1959 and 1964.

Mr. Summerlin also started smoking Kool cigarettes (an R.J. Reynolds brand) around age 14. Mr. Summerlin smoked R.J. Reynolds cigarettes for 25 years.  Then he switched to Philip Morris’s Marlboro Menthols, which he smoked for the next 25 years. The plaintiff claimed Mr. Summerlin could not quit because he was addicted to smoking. She alleged the nicotine and menthol in the cigarettes caused her husband’s addiction. 

In an attempt to implicate both the brake and cigarette companies, the plaintiff argued that inhaling asbestos-containing brake dust and cigarette smoke combined to create a “synergistic” effect that caused Mr. Summerlin’s lung cancer in 2015.

At trial, multiple experts testified that no peer-reviewed epidemiological study has ever shown that asbestos-containing brakes cause lung cancer. In addition, a world renowned expert pathologist testified that Mr. Summerlin was not exposed to enough asbestos from Hampden brakes to increase his cancer risk. 

After six weeks of trial, over three hundred exhibits, and fourteen witnesses, the jury returned defense verdicts for Hampden and Philip Morris. Exemplifying the risk this trial posed to all the defendants, the jury awarded the plaintiff $5.3 million in pain and suffering, $3.5 million for loss of consortium, $4.3 million in wrongful death damages, and $30 million in punitive damages - $43.1 million total. 

This case highlights the new ways plaintiffs’ attorneys are attempting to increase the value of their cases. By suing asbestos and tobacco companies, plaintiffs’ lawyers are demanding higher settlement amounts and conducting aggressive discovery and trial tactics. Defense attorneys and clients must explore novel and innovative methods to counteract this new trial threat. For more information, please contact David Governo (david.governo@smithduggan.com) or Vincent DePalo (vincent.depalo@smithduggan.com).

October 24, 2018

Disclaimer: © 2018 This information is not intended as legal advice. Readers should consult a qualified attorney before acting on any of the information contained in this document. This information is provided for informational purposes only and may be considered advertising under the rules of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.