$18.5M awarded over fatal asbestos exposure at central Arkansas brake shop

After a three-week trial in a Little Rock federal courtroom, a jury awarded more than $18.5 million Tuesday to the family of a man who worked at a brake shop in the city in the 1970s, exposing him to asbestos in brake-shoe linings.

The verdict, published Wednesday in electronic court records, was against Honeywell International Inc., which years ago bought Allied Signal, a company that had acquired Bendix in 1984. Bendix was one of the principal manufacturers of brake-shoe linings in the country. When Honeywell bought Allied Signal, it also bought all of the company's liabilities.

Benjamin Braly, a Dallas attorney who tried the case on behalf of the estate of Ronald Burlie Thomas, a former Arkansan who developed mesothelioma in March 2017 and died Dec. 31 of that year at age 72, said he found the verdict "validating." But Braly said he was disappointed that jurors didn't also hold Ford Motor Co. liable for Thomas' suffering and death. Ford manufactured some of the cars on which Thomas installed the brake shoes, but other American automobile manufacturers had been absolved of asbestos liability as a result of bankruptcy filings years ago.

Mesothelioma is a fatal, progressive and incurable cancer of the lining around the lung and is a sign of exposure to asbestos. Braly said the disease takes 20 to 50 years from the time of first exposure to develop, and that latency period is why asbestos lawsuits continue to be filed across the country, despite increasing awareness over the years of the dangers of the product. He said the product causes genetic errors, eventually causing the coating that allows the lungs to slide over the ribs to thicken and harden until it hurts to breathe.

Thomas worked at Stuart's Brake Shop in Little Rock and North Little Rock from 1971 until 1983, performing 10 to 12 brake jobs every day during some periods, according to court documents. Braly noted that the shop, which is still open in North Little Rock, was owned then by Stuart Flanders, but has different owners now. He said Thomas moved to Texas in 1984 and was still living in the state, in Midland, when he was diagnosed.

Thomas held other jobs, too, but because his greatest exposure to asbestos was at the brake shops in Little Rock and North Little Rock, "we feel like it made more sense to file [the 2017 lawsuit] in Little Rock," Braly said Wednesday.

He said he isn't expecting Honeywell to appeal the verdict because of a negotiated settlement before the verdict that covered a range of verdicts.

The verdict, delivered late in the day Tuesday in the courtroom of Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, assigned 18.75 percent of the fault to Honeywell. Jurors also found that Ronald Thomas was 5 percent at fault, and that two other companies that settled their portions of the case before trial -- Pneumo Abex LLC and Genuine Parts Co., also known as Napa -- each bore 9.375 percent of the fault. Jurors attributed the lion's share of the fault -- 57.5 percent -- to "other parties."

Jurors awarded $216,000 for Thomas' loss of life, $5 million for his pain and suffering and $341,979 for his medical expenses. Thomas' wife was deceased, but the couple's son and two daughters, all of whom live in Texas, were each awarded $1 million for anguish. The jury also leveled $10 million in punitive damages, answering yes to the question, "Do you find, by clear and convincing evidence, that Honeywell International Inc. knew or should have known that its conduct would naturally and probably result in injury and that it continued such conduct in reckless disregard of the consequences of its action?"

Braly said Bendix "knew they had a problem" but instead of trying to find a solution, they "turned a blind eye" to it.

Braly is with the law firm Dean Omar Branham & Shirley in Dallas, which he says has 50 to 100 active mesothelioma cases underway across the country, but, "This was my first trial."

While he is a first-year trial lawyer, he said, he has been a part of several other mesothelioma trials over the past 10 years.

George Wise of the Brad Hendricks Law Firm in Little Rock was local counsel on the plaintiffs' side.

Metro on 01/31/2019