From 1959 to 1964, Rivers Sampson worked as a sandblaster and used silica as an abrasive agent. In 2014, at the age of 77, Sampson died of sepsis and silicosis, which is a progressive disease caused by inhaling silica dust. Having silica dust attached to the lungs causes inflammation and scarring.
Sampson’s two surviving adult children brought a lawsuit against more than 20 companies that mined and sold silica for use in sandblasting. It was alleged that these defendants chose not to warn of the health risks of silica exposure. Some of these defendants settled before the trial for confidential amounts or were otherwise dismissed from the case. However, the lawsuit did proceed to a jury verdict against Mississippi Valley Silica Co.
The Sampson family sought punitive damages claiming that the defendants, in choosing not to warn of the known health hazard, constituted actual malice or gross negligence. The Sampson family asserted that the defendant failed to add product warnings regarding the health hazards of silica exposure until 1972, although the industry was well aware of the dangers since at least the 1930s.