Missouri Appeals Court Affirms $10M Punitive Damage Award Against Valve Manufacturer

Jeannette G. Poage, the plaintiff, filed a products liability suit against defendant Crane Co. in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis, alleging that her husband, James E. Poage, suffered personal injuries and wrongful death from mesothelioma, which was caused from Mr. Poage’s work with the defendant’s products. Mr. Poage served in the U.S. Navy from 1954-58 as a machinist on the USS Haynesworth where he helped maintain the valves on the ship that required replacing gaskets and packing. The plaintiff alleged that some of these valves, gaskets, and/or packing contained asbestos and were manufactured by the defendant. The plaintiff asserted both strict liability and negligence claims arguing that Mr. Poage’s work with the defendant’s products caused him to inhale asbestos dust, which subsequently caused his mesothelioma, and ultimate death in 2012. Mr. Poage was not deposed he passed aware prior to the plaintiff filing this claim.

The case went to trial from June 23, 2015 to July 2, 2015 and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff with an award of $1.5M in compensatory damages and $10M in punitive damages. On September 14, 2015, the trial court entered a judgment of a reduced compensatory award of $822,250 based on settlement agreements with other defendants, along with the $10M punitive damage award. The trial court overruled all of the defendant’s post-trial motions. The defendant appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, Division Two, arguing (1) the plaintiff failed to meet her burden of proving necessary factual pre-requisites for a submissible claim and (2) a reversal, or at least a substantial reduction, of the plaintiff’s award of punitive damages.

Submissible Claim

As to the defendant’s first point, the plaintiff failed to make a submissible claim because she (i) failed to establish cause in fact; (ii) failed to establish proximate cause; and (iii) the defendant owed no duty to Mr. Poage because during his Navy service, the defendant did not manufacture or supply the gaskets and/or packing Mr. Poage allegedly worked with. Upon review of the record, this Appeals Court found that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that the defendant was liable under theories of both strict liability and negligence. Additionally, it was sufficiently established that the defendant owed a duty to Mr. Poage to warn, that the defendant defectively designed its valves in an unreasonably dangerous manner, and such conduct was the proximate cause of Mr. Poage’s death. Accordingly, the Appeals Court denied the defendant’s first point and affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

Punitive Damages

The defendant contends the trial court erred in entering judgment as to punitive damages on, among others, two main points: (i) The plaintiff submitted no evidence that the defendant’s conduct was outrageous or done with “complete indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others;” and (ii) The plaintiff failed to adduce evidence demonstrating the defendant knew or had reason to know there was a high probability of causing injury to Navy seaman.

Upon review of the record, this court noted that the defendant did not expressly admit to having actual knowledge of asbestos’ danger or the probability its valves would cause injury. “However, circumstantial evidence alone is not a bar to recovery, and the evidence on the record supports a conclusion that Defendant had actual knowledge their valves had a high probability of causing lung related diseases.” Therefore, in reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court found sufficient evidence to satisfy the knowledge requirements for these claims.

However, a finding of actual knowledge alone is not sufficient to conclude the defendant’s conduct was “outrageous” and/or committed with conscious disregard or indifference for others but it does provide support for that conclusion. [Citation Omitted]. Based upon this support, and other testimony in the record, the court found sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude with clear conviction that the defendant’s actions giving rise to this suit were committed with conscious disregard or complete indifference.

The defendant put forth additional arguments as to the punitive damages claim including the award was grossly excessive and exceeded fair and reasonable compensation. Here, the court found, under Missouri law, there was nothing that led to the conclusion that the trial court’s verdict was so grossly excessive that it shocks the conscious of the court.

Accordingly, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, Division Two, affirmed the trial court’s judgment and upheld the plaintiff’s verdict award of $822,250 in compensatory damages and $10M in punitive damages.

Read the full decision here.