As 2014 draws to a close, the New York City asbestos litigation (“NYCAL”) has seen reaffirmation of the recent decision to allow punitive damages claims to go forward, and two summary judgments that show the court is requiring solid, non-speculative evidence of exposure to a defendant’s products.
On December 15, 2014, Justice Sherry Klein Heitler denied the NYCAL defendants’ motion to renew and reargue the court’s April 8, 2014 decision to allow punitive damages to be pursued in NYCAL cases. Prior to the April 8 ruling, defendants and plaintiffs had an agreed-upon Case Management Order (“CMO”) that stayed claims for punitive damages. In the motion to renew and reargue, defendants asserted that the April 8 ruling created mass confusion among the asbestos judges and counsel, and undermined the parties’ voluntary CMO which was designed to provide a fair, expeditious and inexpensive means to resolve asbestos claims. Defendants also argued that Judge Heitler exceeded her authority because the CMO was a negotiated, agreed-upon compromise of the parties. Judge Heitler rejected these arguments, ruling that the court has the authority to correct what in its view was “a fundamental inequality in the CMO.”
In rejecting defendants’ arguments, Judge Heitler and relied on the overarching principle that New York public policy recognizes that an asbestos plaintiff has a right to seek punitive damages in appropriate circumstances. The court noted that punitive damages are not deferred in any other county in the State, and denied there was any confusion among the asbestos judges. Judge Heitler ruled that each trial judge has the authority and responsibility to determine whether a jury instruction for punitive damages should be permitted.
Justice Heitler also rejected defendants’ equal protection and due process claims. She noted that asbestos defendants in NYCAL are not treated any differently than in any other county and reiterated that the April 8 ruling made clear that punitive damages are only recoverable if the proof establishes there was ‘such gross, wanton or willful fraud or other morally culpable conduct to a degree sufficient to justify such an award.’ Moreover, neither the April 8 ruling nor the CMO prohibited a defendant from moving to dismiss a punitive damage claim.
Lack of Nexus and Causation
In Falkenmeyer v. A.O. Smith Water Products Co., defendant Cleaver-Brooks moved for summary judgment based on the absence of evidence of exposure. The court recognized that a plaintiff must demonstrate that there was actual exposure to asbestos fibers released from the defendant’s product. Plaintiff’s decedent died of lung cancer attributed to an occupational exposure to asbestos. To prove liability, plaintiff proffered the testimony of decedent’s co-worker, who testified that both he and the decedent worked on boilers and burners and were thereby exposed to asbestos. The co-worker generally recognized the name of defendant’s product, but also admitted that he didn’t know which particular boilers and burners that he or the decedent worked on. Falkenmeyer granted summary judgment, ruling that the nexus to defendant’s product was speculative and liability could not be reasonably inferred from co-worker testimony.
Similarly, in Casaregola v. 3M Company, defendant Cleaver Brooks moved for summary judgment after two-co-workers of the plaintiff’s decedent failed to demonstrate that the decedent was exposed to asbestos from defendant’s product. Casaregola was a carpenter and worked on various Navy ships. One ship, the Mormac Cargo, did use defendant’s evaporator and acid-cleaning pumps. However, there was no showing that the decedent worked on the Mormac Cargo or that similar ships that decedent actually worked on had the same equipment. Moreover, even if these ships had the same equipment, there was no evidence of Mr. Casaregola’s actual exposure. The court rejected a co-worker’s affidavit because it failed to demonstrate Mr. Casaregola’s actual exposure. The court ruled that “plaintiff cannot show that Mr. Casaregola was exposed to asbestos from the products for which the defendant bears responsibility without resorting to speculation” and granted summary judgment.