The Louisiana Supreme Court has slashed about 90% of the personal-injury damages awarded in test cases of a class-action suit over the release of paint thinner at a Union Carbide plant.
In a 5-3 decision issued Oct. 19, the justices ruled that a lower-court judge had committed “a clear abuse of discretion” in making the awards to the first group of 12 plaintiffs in the case. The class now includes about 1,100 people.
4.6 Million Pounds of Vapors
The case stems from a 1998 chemical leak at Union Carbide's plant in Taft, LA. The leak occurred when roof drains failed in a storm, allowing water to build up. Eventually, the roof collapsed, and the water fell into a vat of paint thinner, according to reports.
The leak lasted 17 hours, ultimately releasing about 4.6 million pounds of naphtha vapors into nearby communities.
The 12 plaintiffs were the last of an initial group of 30 chosen for the first “test” case of the lawsuit. The district court threw out 16 of the 30 cases, leaving 14, including two whose awards were dismissed on appeal.
The plaintiffs argued that they had experienced “any or all of the following - eyes, nose, or throat irritation, coughing, choking or gagging, or nausea” from the release, according to the suit.
Awards and Appeal
Medical experts testified at the trial that exposure to naphtha at certain concentrations could produce the symptoms reported.
The judge eventually awarded damages of $3,500 each to five employees who had been inside the plant at the time; $2,500 to an employee who had been working near the plant; $2,000 each to two nearby residents; and $1,500 each to the others, who lived “near the fringe of the exposure area.”
Union Carbide sought a new trial, arguing that none of the plaintiffs testified that they had sought medical attention, evacuated, or missed any work.
The Supreme Court agreed, slashing the awards to $500 each for the plant workers; $250 for the employee working nearby; $150 each to the two neighbors; and $100 each to the rest.
The high court called the injuries “mere annoyances," similar to seasonal allergies and “minimal in nature.”
“The record reveals claimants suffered minor symptoms from their exposure, such as watering eyes, nose or throat irritation, coughing, and headaches,” the opinion said.
“None of the claimants sought or required medical attention as a result of the exposure. They were not required to evacuate from the area as a result of the chemical release, nor did they miss any work or school.”
A medical expert at the trial "testified the symptoms experienced by the claimants would resolve themselves in a day, and could be treated with over-the-counter medications such as Visine,” the justices noted.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Chemistry Council, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, and Louisiana Chemical Association submitted friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Union Carbide, which became a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company in 2001.