The Supreme Court of Louisiana has reversed a $2.4 million judgment for punitive damages against Exxon Mobil Inc. A former pipeyard employee claimed the oil giant had negligently exposed him to radioactive material that caused his cancer. The court found that the worker had already unsuccessfully litigated the claim in a previous suit. Therefore, according to the opinion, the award was barred because a jury in another lawsuit had previously failed to award the Plaintiff, John Oleszkowicz, punitive damages for his increased risk of cancer. He and 15 other Plaintiffs had filed suit against Exxon and Intracoastal Tubular Services Inc., the operator of the pipeyard, in the previous case. The jury concluded in that case that Exxon had not engaged in wanton or reckless conduct in the storage, handling or transportation of hazardous or toxic substances.
The Plaintiff had not yet contracted cancer before the first suit was concluded, and the court in that case instructed the jurors that a Plaintiff could file a new lawsuit if any of them developed cancer. Several months after that verdict, Oleszkowicz was diagnosed with prostate cancer and he filed suit. He sought both compensatory and exemplary damages from Exxon in the second suit. In a most “interesting” conclusion, the Supreme Court said that Plaintiff had the right to bring a future cancer claim against Exxon, but since he had already unsuccessfully prosecuted his punitive damages claim, that claim was barred under the res judicata doctrine. The judgment of the court of appeals that had affirmed the award of punitive damages was reversed. Justice Guidry wrote for the Supreme Court:
While we acknowledge the facts of this case are somewhat unusual, it does not involve a complex procedural situation or an unanticipated quirk in the system. Allowing Mr. Oleszkowicz to reraise the issue of Exxon’s conduct for purposes of exemplary damages would simply amount to another bite at the proverbial apple and frustrate the purposes of the res judicata doctrine.
The Plaintiff filed the instant suit in Louisiana state court in December 2010 based on Exxon’s failure to warn of a known danger and strict liability for engaging in ultrahazardous activity. He based his claims on a stint working at Intracoastal Tubular Services Inc.’s Harvey, La., pipe yard from 1979-86, where he said he was exposed to the radioactive material while cleaning pipe and tubing belonging to Exxon. Exxon then filed a motion for partial summary judgment, claiming that the exemplary damages claim was barred because the jury had ruled it out in the previous litigation. But the district court disagreed, finding that the Plaintiff’s claim was separate and apart from what had been litigated in the first trial.
Following a trial, the jury awarded him $850,000 in compensatory damages after finding Exxon was negligent in not being aware of the so-called naturally occurring radioactive material, and in its failure to prevent Oleszkowicz’s exposure. The jury also awarded $10 million in punitive damages. On appeal in December of 2013, Louisiana’s Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court’s denial of Exxon’s motion for partial summary judgment based on res judicata, applying the “exceptional circumstances” exception based on “the complexity of and convoluted circumstances involved in the instant case.” The appeals court reduced the award to $2.37 million.
The litigation stemmed from a suit filed by Warren Lester and hundreds of other plaintiffs against Exxon and others in Louisiana state court in 2002, seeking personal injury damages for negligent exposure to naturally occurring radioactive material and other hazardous materials at various Louisiana pipe yards operated by Intracoastal Tubular Services Inc. Along with 15 other Plaintiffs, Oleszkowicz’s claim was transferred to another court on an exception of improper venue. In January 2010, the case proceeded to trial. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiffs against Exxon and awarded damages to each Plaintiff for an increased risk of cancer.
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