New York Times August 8, 1998, Saturday

Jury Awards $760 Million in Chemical Trial


LOS ANGELES, Aug. 8 -- A jury here has assessed punitive damages of more than $760 million against five oil and chemical companies for injuries suffered by workers building the Stealth fighter at the Lockheed Corporation, lawyers involved in the case said today.

The decision by the Los Angeles County Superior Court jury followed a finding that the companies had not provided adequate warning about the toxic effects of chemicals like solvents that were used in the manufacture of the radar-evading aircraft in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's.

The jury, which last week assessed $25.4 million in compensatory damages against the companies, levied punitive damages of $252.1 million against the Exxon Corporation; $236.1 million against the Shell Oil Company, the American unit of Royal Dutch/Shell Group; $145.6 million against Ashland Inc.; $81.25 million against the Unocal Corporation and $45.6 million against DuPont, said Larry Janssen, a lawyer for the five companies.

Mr. Janssen said the companies would appeal. "This verdict is a tremendous travesty," he said. "It's just a miscarriage of justice in the truest sense." Mr. Janssen, who is with the firm of Steptoe & Johnson, said the judge did not let the jury hear evidence of the warnings issued by the companies.

The latest trial is the sixth involving workers at Lockheed's Skunk Works plant in Burbank, Calif., where the company does much of its advanced aircraft development. But the jury verdict, handed up Thursday but announced today, is the only one to result in more than minor damages against the companies.

Some 640 workers initially sued Lockheed and numerous chemical companies, saying the workers suffered injuries and illnesses that ranged from cancer deaths and nervous system damage to lesser illnesses, said Jack Girardi, a partner in the firm of Girardi & Keese, which represented the workers. Lockheed and many of the chemical suppliers settled in earlier stages.

The judge broke the plaintiffs into smaller groups to make the trials more manageable. This trial involved 43 plaintiffs, according to Mr. Janssen. The plaintiffs' lawyer said damages were awarded to 38 plaintiffs.

One factor in the case was that the Stealth fighter's secrecy could have increased exposure to the chemicals. "These were closed-off buildings, with windows blacked out, with poor circulation," Mr. Girardi said. But he said the chemical companies knew about those conditions and did not provide adequate warning.

Barry Lane, a spokesman for Unocal, said his company made a one-time sale in 1984 of two drums, or 110 gallons of naphtha, a solvent, to the Lockheed plant. He said the company was found not liable in two of the previous trials and assessed minor damages in the two other trials.

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