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State of Washington Supreme Court upholds $81.5 million verdict in mechanic’s death

Jerry “Doy” Coogan worked for decades with asbestos-containing brake pads and other parts supplied by the defendant

Olympia, Wash.—The Supreme Court of the state of Washington has overturned an appellate court ruling and reinstated a $81.5 million verdict in a wrongful death claim brought by the family of a deceased auto mechanic.

In a July 8 opinion, the justices unanimously concurred that the Court of Appeals “overstepped its limited role and inappropriately substituted its own judgment for that of the trial court, and most importantly, the jury.”

The original claim was brought by the family and estate of Jerry “Doy” Coogan of Kettle Falls, Wash., who died in 2015 at the age of 67 from complications of mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

According to a news release, Coogan worked for decades with asbestos-containing brake pads and other parts supplied by defendant Genuine Parts Company and sold through defendant National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA). Following a 12-week trial, the jury unanimously returned the $81.5 million verdict for compensatory damages against the two companies. After post judgement interest, the current amount of the judgement exceeds $95,000,000.

The court of appeals found that the trial court erred by excluding a defense witness, and applied what was termed its own “subjective determination” that the jury’s award for Coogan’s pain and suffering was excessive. Although the court did not disturb the jury’s liability findings against Genuine Parts Company and NAPA, it ordered a new trial on damages.

In reversing, the Supreme Court found that the court of appeals had failed to give proper deference to the trial court’s decision to exclude defendants’ expert testimony as speculative and unfairly prejudicial. The Supreme Court further determined that the verdict was supported by “substantial evidence” and that the trial court had correctly rejected defendants’ contention that the jury had been influenced by passion and prejudice.

The court was unequivocal in its determination that “[t]here was nothing in the record unmistakably showing the jury’s verdict was based on some improper consideration instead of the legally sufficient evidence.”

“Trial by jury is the bedrock of our justice system,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion. “We trust juries to render verdicts based on their assessment of the evidence according to the law as instructed by the trial court. Appellate review is appropriately limited, serving as a backstop to ensure trials are conducted fairly, the law is applied correctly, and the verdict is within the bounds of justice.”

The case is Gerri Coogan et al. v. Genuine Parts Co. et al., No. 15-2-09504-3 in the Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma. The case was tried on behalf of the Coogans by Jessica Dean and Ben Adams of Dean Omar Branham Shirley, LLP. Lisa Shirley of Dean Omar Branham Shirley, LLP, was appellate counsel.

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