High court overturns $2.6 million award in silicosis case

Published 11:25 am Friday, July 20, 2012

In a 5-4 decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court has overturned a civil lawsuit awarding $2.6 million to a Warren County sandblaster who died of silicosis before he could receive payment.

The court ordered a new trial after finding that Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick erred in not issuing a “sophisticated user” jury instruction in Robert Eastman’s suit against Mississippi Valley Silica Co.

The sophisticated user defense relieves a seller of liability if the user of their product is aware of the product’s danger.

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Patrick refused to issue that instruction because the term was not defined in the jury instructions and would confuse jurors, according to court records.

In the majority opinion, Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson wrote that Patrick abused his discretion by denying the instruction rather than re-forming it.

During the trial, several witnesses testified that the dangers of silica were published as early as the 1920s, and attorneys for Mississippi Valley Silica Co. argued that the dangers were widely known four years before Eastman began sandblasting.

Associate Justice David A. Chandler in the dissenting opinion argued that it was the defense’s responsibility to provide clear jury instructions.

“I would find that the jury instruction was so flawed that it did not function,” Chandler wrote.

Following a six-day trial in November 2009, a jury awarded the money to Eastman, who worked as a sandblaster from 1963 to 1991 at what was then Marathon-LeTourneau off U.S. 61 South. After the verdict, but before the final judgment, Eastman died of silicosis.

Eastman developed the disease from the use of silica sand sold by a company that knew it was hazardous but did not warn against its use, Eastman’s attorney Tim Porter argued.

The jury ruled that Mississippi Valley Silica Co. was negligent and awarded Eastman $7.6 million. In the final judgment, Patrick reduced the judgment to $2.6 million.

Mississippi Valley Silica went out of business in 1978 and was represented in the appeal by the legal firm Copeland, Cook, Taylor and Bush of Jackson.

A date for the new trial has not been set.