Category Archives: Chemicals & Toxic Torts

Graphic Images on Cigarette Packs May Go Up in Smoke

A federal judge has blocked the implementation of a new FDA rule requiring the display of graphic images on cigarette packaging. The nine controversial photos are set to appear (along with accompanying text) on all cigarettes sold in the U.S. beginning in September of 2012. There’s no subtlety here. It’s a rotating gallery of unpleasant images meant to convey the dangers of smoking — everything from a set of diseased lungs to a man smoking through a hole in his throat. There’s even a post-autopsy sutured chest thrown in for good measure. Under the FDA rule, the warnings and the images must cover the top half of every pack of cigarettes, front and back. (More on Cigarette Health Warnings from the FDA.)    

This week’s granting of a preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon does not amount to the overturning of the FDA rule itself. What the injunction does do is block the rule from taking effect until the lawsuit over the requirement is resolved; specifically, in Judge Leon’s words, until “the constitutionality of the commercial speech that these graphic images compel” can be evaluated.

Judge Leon’s granting of the preliminary injunction means that, here in the early stages of the lawsuit, the tobacco companies have made a strong argument that the FDA rule violates free speech. That argument goes like this: by requiring the display of these new graphic anti-smoking images on all cigarette packaging, the federal government is essentially — and unconstitutionally — forcing commercial speech on the part of the tobacco companies. The granting of the tobacco companies’ request for a preliminary injunction is obviously a win for R.J. Reynolds and friends. At the very least, it’s an early indication of which way Judge Leon is leaning on the larger issue of the rule’s constitutionality; an injunction like this is only issued when the party requesting it shows a “likelihood of success” on the merits of the lawsuit.

For now, when it comes to scaring smokers straight, it looks like the old standby Surgeon General’s Warning will just have to do.

Feds Declare BP the Winner in Gulf Oil Spill Blame Game

Before the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and triggered the largest oil spill in history, BP’s main priority was cost-cutting, and the company let little things — like, say, effective risk assessment and minimization — fall by the wayside. That’s the conclusion reached after a federal investigation into the Gulf Oil spill. Findings are detailed in a comprehensive report issued earlier this week.

Other companies involved in the incident don’t escape blame, including Transocean (which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig) and Halliburton (which did cement work on a well that would later explode). But the report puts the majority of fault squarely on BP’s shoulders.

A few of the more scathing findings from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Resource Management and Enforcement (BOERME):

  • In the weeks leading up to the blowout on April 20, the BP team made a series of operational decisions that reduced costs and increased risk.
  • BP personnel in Houston did not transfer critical information to rig personnel…[T]his communication failure, which resulted in the rig crew being unaware of increasing operational risks, may have created a false sense of security among those on the rig.
  • BP personnel were compensated and their performance reviewed, at least in part, based upon their abilities to control or reduce costs.
  • An “operational” performance measure for BP drilling personnel was delivering a well with costs under the authorized expenditure amount. There was no comparable performance measure for occupational safety achievements.
  • In the weeks leading up to April 20, the BP Macondo team made a series of operational decisions that reduced costs and increased risks.
  • A number of BP decisions were not subjected to a formal risk assessment process. In addition, the Panel found no evidence indicating that, at the time of the blowout, BP had in place any policy or practice to assess whether safe operations were being compromised to achieve cost savings.

There’s already talk that the BOERME report — and its fairly damning conclusions as to BP’s liability for the Deepwater disaster — will add tens of billions to BP’s civil liability for the spill. And the federal government’s findings may even trigger federal criminal charges against BP.

$322M Asbestos Verdict is Largest Ever

Late last week, a jury in Mississippi handed down the largest-ever verdict in an asbestos case, awarding $322 million in damages to a former oil field worker who developed health related problems linked to asbestos exposure.

Attorneys for Thomas C. Brown, a 48-year-old former oil field “roughneck,” argued that Brown had inhaled asbestos dust on the job, and that the manufacturers and sellers of the asbestos (defendants Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. and Union Carbide Corp.) failed to take proper steps to warn of the dangers of the materials. Brown developed asbestosis and other health problems after years on the job, and now needs to be on oxygen around the clock. A civil court jury in Jackson, Mississippi sided with Brown and ordered the companies to pay up, to the tune of $322 million. That’s the largest single verdict ever in an asbestos case, at least according to one of Brown’s lawyers. The defendants have (surprise, surprise) called the verdict outrageous and are vowing to fight the award via an appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Brown’s asbestos-related health problems stemmed from on-the-job exposure that began over 30 years ago, but asbestos is still a problem (and sometimes an unavoidable one) for a lot of workers in the U.S. As many as 1.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to significant amounts of asbestos in the workplace, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Get more information on asbestos — including related health and legal issues — in Nolo’s Asbestos, Chemicals, and Toxic Torts topic.