Earlier this month, a California appellate court ruled that an offhand remark by a corporate employee may be sufficient to award punitive damages. The court also addressed issues related to the “every-exposure” theory, without wading directly into the every-exposure debate.

In Phillips v. Honeywell International Inc. (March 17, 2017. Case F070761) — Cal.App.5th –, the court held that the trial court properly admitted a 1966 letter from an employee who was not an officer, director, or managing agent. The letter is well known (described in the opinion as “infamous”) in asbestos litigation as “the E.A. Martin letter,” and is the frequent subject of in limine motions. Martin was a purchasing director, and he was writing to one of his asbestos suppliers, sarcastically addressing an article in Chemical Week magazine: “[I]f you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it. There’s got to be some cause.”

The court held that the letter served as circumstantial evidence that the company was aware that asbestos could be a potential health hazard years before it ceased using asbestos, and was sufficient to support an award of $3.5 million in punitive damages (of a total $5.8 million award).

The admittance of the letter has broad implications, suggesting that any stray remark – even a sarcastic expression of confidence in a product ingredient by a corporate employee who was not in the upper echelon – can serve to support a finding of massive punitive damages.

As the California court noted, the same letter has been both admitted and rejected by multiple other courts. For example, an Illinois appellate court pronounced the letter “a revealing historical anecdote that may give us insight into the thinking within the asbestos industry in 1966, but it was irrelevant. A persuasive argument can also be made that even if it had some modest relevance, it was inflammatory, and whatever probative value it had was outweighed by its prejudicial effect.” (Dukes v. Pneumo Abex Corp. (2008) 386 Ill.App.3d 425, 439.)

In an unpublished portion of the decision (meaning it may not be cited as precedent in California, though it may be citable elsewhere), Phillips also addressed the split in authority regarding the “every-exposure” (a.k.a. “no safe dose”) theory versus the “every-identified-exposure” theory in asbestos litigation. Under the every-exposure theory of causation, “every exposure to asbestos fibers is a substantial factor in causing disease, regardless of fiber type or dose, so long as the fibers are traceable to a product and are not merely ‘background’ fibers found in the ambient air.” The same defendant lost a challenge to that theory in Davis v. Honeywell International Inc. (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 477, and sought to have the Phillips court part ways with Davis. Instead, the Phillips court found that the expert had espoused the subtly different “every-identified-exposure” theory.

In reaching this conclusion, the Phillips court quoted an Ohio decision approvingly: “Although some courts have rejected the ‘each and every exposure’ theory, others have distinguished testimony suggesting a de minimis exposure to asbestos could cause mesothelioma from testimony that each significant exposure to asbestos could be a cause.” The California court found that this theory was “consistent with California law addressing proof of causation in asbestos-related cancer cases,” in that it considered only significant and identifiable exposures in determining the risk of the disease.