Appellate Court Grants New Trial Due to Lower Court’s Error on Jury Charge as to “Recklessness Standard” Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, Fourth Department

In the matter of the Estate of Lee Holdsworth, in the Supreme Court of New York, Erie County (Lower Court), judgment was entered against the defendant Crane Co. upon a jury verdict finding that Crane Co. was 35 percent liable for the damages arising from injuries sustained by Lee Holdsworth (the plaintiff’s decedent) as a result of exposure to asbestos-containing products used as component parts with the valves that defendant produced. The jury also determined the defendant acted with reckless disregard for the safety of the plaintiff’s decedent. This important determination means defendant is jointly and severally liable for 100 percent of the damages. See CPLR 1601(1); 1602(7). Crane Co. appealed.

The Fourth Department Appellate Division ordered that the judgment was unanimously vacated on the law, a prior order was modified on the law by granting a post-verdict motion in part, setting aside the verdict in part, and granting a new trial on the claim that defendant Crane Co. acted with reckless disregard for the safety of the plaintiff’s decedent Lee Holdsworth. The Appellate Court supported this decision with the following:

The Lower Court erred in instructing the jury on the plaintiff’s claim that the defendant acted with reckless disregard for the safety of the plaintiff’s decedent in accordance with the language set forth in Matter of New York City Asbestos Litig. (Maltese) (89 NY2d 955, 956-957). Although the Lower Court used the charges set forth in the New York Pattern Jury Instructions, this specific jury charge does not accurately reflect the standard set by the Court of Appeals in Maltese because the charge in the Pattern Jury Instructions in effect reduced the plaintiff’s burden of proof on her claim that defendant acted with reckless disregard for the safety of the plaintiff’s decedent.

The Appellate Court also rejected defendant’s contention that the apportionment of 35 percent liability to defendant is against the weight of the evidence and reasoned that it is axiomatic that a verdict may be set aside as against the weight of the evidence only if “the evidence so preponderated in favor of the defendant that the verdict could not have been reached on any fair interpretation of the evidence. [Citation Omitted]. In this case, the Lower Court properly determined that defendant did not meet its burden of establishing the equitable shares of fault attributable to other tortfeasors in order to reduce its own liability for damages.

Lastly, the Appellate Court rejected defendant’s contention that the Lower Court failed to require the plaintiff to apply for recovery from trusts set up pursuant to 11 USC § 524 (g) for three bankrupt nonparty tortfeasors prior to entering judgment against defendant. It was noted that General Obligations Law § 15-108 does not apply to reduce defendant’s liability inasmuch as there has been no settlement between the plaintiff and the respective trusts. [Citation Omitted]. Thus, the court did not have express authority to require the plaintiff to apply for proceeds from the respective trusts before judgment was entered.

Read the full decision here.

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