ST. LOUIS — A split federal appeals court has nixed a $13 million punitive damages award for a woman who claimed leaked chemicals from a Missouri ball bearing plant gave her an autoimmune disorder.
In an 2-1 decision on April 5, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the factory's parent company, Schaeffler Group USA Inc., shouldn't have been included in the trial and the company's presence had muddied the proceedings.
Jodelle L. Kirk, who grew up near FAG Bearings Corporation's plant in Joplin, Missouri, had won $13 million in addition to $7.6 million in compensatory damages for exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreaser used to clean ball bearings.
In 1991, the Missouri Department of Health and the federal Environmental Protection Agency detected TCE contamination in residential wells in two communities south of the plant - the Villages of Silver Creek and Saginaw. Kirk claimed the leaked chemicals from the plant caused her to develop autoimmune hepatitis (AIH) as a teenager.
She alleged in her lawsuit that "Schaeffler's negligent release of TCE and failure to warn the community of TCE contamination caused her to develop AIH.
The court determined that Schaeffler Group couldn't be held liable in the personal injury case brought against FAG Bearings because the pollution occurred before 1982 and Schaeffler only acquired FAG in 2005.
The court reversed and remanded the district court's decision, saying it abused its discretion in ruling that Schaeffler was "judicially estopped to deny it can be held responsible as successor for FAG Bearings' tortious conduct." The court's ruling doesn't affect Kirk's $7.6 million award because the compensatory damages case was based entirely on FAG Bearings' conduct.
In a dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Bobby E. Shepard stated she doesn't believe dismissing Schaeffler and reversing the punitive damages is warranted.
"Instead, I would uphold both the compensatory and punitive damages verdict in full against both Schaeffler and FAG Bearings," he said.