Punitive Damages -- 2015

Grigg v. Owens-Illinois, Inc.   (Cal. Ct. App.)

Punitive damages for unforeseeable asbestos claims

Asbestos litigation has flooded American courtrooms. Most courts have ruled that corporations did not have a duty to warn about take-home or spousal exposure to asbestos that occurred in the 1950’s because science and medical experts at the time were not aware of the risks associated with asbestos. Modern understanding of the danger of asbestos exposure did not emerge until the mid-1960’s. Despite this prevailing trend in the courts, a California jury awarded the plaintiff in this case $11 million in punitive damages for take-home and spousal exposure to asbestos that occurred during the 1950’s.

On appeal, the NAM filed an amicus brief arguing that the company should not be liable for punitive damages since the harm of asbestos exposure was unforeseeable at that time. Absent the scientific and medical awareness of the risk, the company did not have a duty to warn its employees or their spouses of asbestos exposure. Courts usually do not award punitive damage unless the defendant intentionally or maliciously disregarded a known risk. As stated in the brief, holding the company liable in such a case “would be to effectively punish a defendant for failing to predict the future.”

The NAM also argued that awarding punitive damages in cases like this depletes financial resources and prevents current and future plaintiffs from getting appropriate damage awards. Furthermore, the risk of punitive damages discourages practical settlement negotiations and slows down the asbestos docket. California’s practice of awarding punitive damages in asbestos cases has caused an explosion of asbestos litigation in the state. To curtail this trend, California should follow most other states and either limit punitive damages in such cases or do away with them all together.

The case was settled in October, 2015, so no decision was issued by the court.

Related Documents:
NAM brief  (July 1, 2014)


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