In a motion filed yesterday, lawyers for the Dow Chemical unit said Smith County Judge Eddie H. Bowen made offhand comments during the trial about how his father might have been exposed to asbestos at Ingalls Shipyard. Defense lawyers first doubted “such a blatant conflict of interest was a possibility in this case,” but began poking around and eventually verified that one Howard J. Bowen, whom they identified as the judge’s father, had sued Union Carbide and others in 1989 and 1992. (One of his lawyers was none other than Dickie Scruggs, who shifted from asbestos to tobacco but ultimately wound up in prison after trying to bribe a judge.)
The $322 million verdict, returned May 4, was already a bit of an oddity even for plaintiff-friendly Mississippi. Finding an unbiased jury was difficult in Smith County, a rural county in south-central Mississippi where according to Union Carbide one in six households includes a family member who’s sued over asbestos. The plaintiff, Thomas Brown, claimed he came down with asbestosis after being exposed to the mineral in drilling mud but even his own physicians — including two pulmonologists and six radiologists — denied it. Only a pair of experts imported by his lawyers from Dallas would support the diagnosis. Neither could Brown show any evidence of lost wages.
Still, a Smith County jury decided Brown was entitled to $11 million for future medical expenses, $11 million for the fear of coming down with something his doctors might actually diagnose as an illness, and $300 million in punitive damages.