BURBANK — Rejecting one of the largest toxic pollution verdicts ever rendered, a California appellate court Tuesday threw out $380 million in punitive damages against five oil and chemical companies accused of failing to warn hundreds of workers about health hazards at the Lockheed Skunk Works.
The three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles ruled in Aguilar vs. Ashland Chemical Co. that there was no evidence of "despicable conduct" by Exxon, Unocal, Shell, Ashland and DuPont. Those companies were accused of failing to warn 29 past and present Lockheed employees about the harmful effects of solvents, primers and epoxies used to build aircraft from the 1960s through the 1980s.
The judges also tossed out $25 million in actual damages against the companies in the case, but sent the case back to the trial court to reconsider actual damages.
The case is one of half a dozen court actions brought by more than 600 employees who filed suit against the companies. The workers' cases were tried separately because groups of employees worked at the company at different times and may have suffered different consequences.
In August 1998, the jury awarded $760 million in punitive damages to the plaintiffs, but legal experts predicted it would be reduced or overturned on appeal because it was so large. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard C. Hubbell, who presided over the trial, reduced the total by half, to $380 million, in November 1998.