Law School Case Brief
Mobil Oil Corp. v. Ellender - 968 S.W.2d 917 (Tex. 1998)
Gross negligence includes two elements: (1) viewed objectively from the actor's standpoint, the act or omission must involve an extreme degree of risk, considering the probability and magnitude of the potential harm to others, and (2) the actor must have actual, subjective awareness of the risk involved, but nevertheless proceed in conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of others. Evidence of simple negligence is not enough to prove either the objective or subjective elements of gross negligence. Under the first element, extreme risk is not a remote possibility of injury or even a high probability of minor harm, but rather the likelihood of serious injury to the plaintiff. Under the second element, actual awareness means that the defendant knew about the peril, but its acts or omissions demonstrated that it did not care. Circumstantial evidence is sufficient to prove either element of gross negligence.
Petitioner oil company challenged an appellate judgment upholding the trial court's ruling favoring respondent deceased employee's family in their lawsuit. Respondents had sued petitioner and other parties after decedent died from leukemia contracted after his exposure to toxins while working for petitioner. Respondents eventually settled with the other parties. A jury held for respondents after petitioner announced its intention to seek a dollar-for-dollar settlement credit, and petitioner was ordered to pay punitive as well as compensatory damages. An appellate court affirmed the trial court's punitive damages award and upheld the trial court's order denying petitioner a settlement credit.
Was there legally sufficient evidence to support the punitive damages award?
There was evidence that Ellender's benzene exposure was dangerously high. Mobil's own benzene samples, taken at the olefins and aromatic plant where Ellender periodically worked in the 1960s and 1970s, showed dangerous levels of benzene exposure between 1976 and 1978. These levels were many times more than levels the Occupational Safety and Health Administration considered dangerous in 1977. Mobil claimed that it complied with the industrial standards for benzene exposure that existed when Ellender worked at Mobil and that Mobil took steps to protect employees and contract workers from benzene exposure. Mobil essentially argued that the court should overturn the jury's gross negligence finding because there was evidence that Mobil's conduct was not grossly negligent. The fact that a defendant exercised some care does not insulate the defendant from gross negligence liability. Mobil's reference to evidence of some care did not affect the court's legal sufficiency review of the jury's gross negligence finding. On further appeal, it was held that there was legally sufficient evidence to support the punitive damages award, but that the punitive damages award was erroneously increased on appeal and that a settlement credit was improperly denied.
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