PANAMA CITY – On Tuesday, May 6, 2009, the jury verdict of a Bay County asbestos lawsuit was announced. Asbestos is classified by the EPA and numerous other agencies as a known cancer-causing causing agent, and plaintiff Betty McBride of Lynn Haven claimed in her suit that her late husband, Woodrow, died of work-related asbestos exposures he suffered while employed at two electric power plants in Florida between the years 1968 to 1996. Mr. McBride worked at Southport’s Smith Power Plant, as well as the Crist Power Plant in Pensacola, neither of which the jury held responsible for McBride’s occupational exposures to asbestos that led to his death from a form of asbestos-caused lung cancer in 2005.
In a case that had originally been filed in Broward County, but, due to a change in venue motion, had been transferred to Panama City, a number of legally peculiar events occurred. While the jury awarded the widow McBride with a total of $995,000 in compensation for medical bills and other damages, $597, 360 of that money will never be seen by McBride because the company held liable for the amount, Florida’s Gulf Power, had never been a named defendant in the lawsuit.
On August 10, 2006 Mrs. McBride filed a wrongful death suit against a total of 16 corporate defendants, each of which had either manufactured products or engaged in behaviors that, as the suit alleged, contributed to the asbestos exposures that led to her husband’s death. The jury essentially held the Smith and Crist power companies to be blameless in Mr. McBride’s asbestos-caused death, but they did find that Gulf Power and Foster Wheeler (the latter a designer and builder of boiler equipment) did manufacture products or engage in corporate behaviors that contributed to Mr. McBride’s lethal exposures to asbestos.
While Foster Wheeler had been included in the civil action and will have to pay approximately $250,000 to the plaintiff, Gulf Power had never been named in the suit, and as a result, the company isn’t legally liable for its jury calculated 60 percent of the nearly $1 million award. The fact that the jury had been able to find against Gulf Power at all is the result of a little known Florida law that allows for what is known as a “Fabre” decision.
Under Florida civil law statutes, defendants to a suit are allowed to present the jury with what are known as Fabre defendants – to name others as the possible cause of wrongdoing, which, essentially, is a legal way to attempt to shift blame to other parties who are unnamed in the original action. Unfortunately, for Mrs. McBride, a Fabre defendant isn’t actually required to pay a judgment against them. Gulf Power spokesman Jeff Rogers had this to say about the jury award: “First of all, let me say that we sympathize with Mrs. McBride and the loss of her husband. Mr. or Mrs. McBride never made any legal claims against Gulf Power. We were never asked to testify or offer a defense. We were very surprised by the Jury’s decision,” said Rogers, who then added, “This is obviously going to reduce the amount she would have otherwise gotten, but this is not a judgment against Gulf Power. It doesn’t mean Gulf Power has to pay any money.” When asked about the occupational or other asbestos exposures Gulf Power had allegedly been guilty of, Rogers declined to comment.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral that has been widely used in industrial processes and in manufactured products. In the early 1970s, however, asbestos use was severely curtailed due to the scientific confirmation that exposures to microscopic, airborne asbestos fibers could lead to serious respiratory diseases such as the incurable form of lung cancer known as malignant mesothelioma, which is the wholly asbestos-caused disease that caused the untimely death of Mr. McBride.