Court Denies Honeywell’s Appeal on Expert and Causation Challenges and Reverses Directed Verdict on Punitive Damages in Plaintiff’s Favor

The defendant, Honeywell International appealed the judgment entered upon a jury verdict that found Honeywell was five percent responsible for the injuries of the decedent Kathleen Schwartz, who died from peritoneal mesothelioma. The amount of the judgment against Honeywell was $1,011,639.92. The plaintiffs filed a cross-appeal challenging the trial court’s decision to grant a directed verdict against them on their claim for punitive damages.

Honeywell’s appeal challenged the trial court’s denial of motions in limine and the court’s denial of a motion for directed verdict. Honeywell first challenged the admissibility of the plaintiff’s expert Dr. Bedrossian, a board certified pathologist. Specifically, Honeywell claims the court erred in allowing Dr. Bedrossian to testify that: (1) an individual’s “total and cumulative exposure to asbestos, from any and all products, containing any and all fiber types” is a significant contributing factor to the development of mesothelioma;(2) evidence of any asbestos exposure from a product (regardless of fiber type or dose) establishes, unless proven otherwise, that the product caused an individual’s mesothelioma; and (3) brake dust caused decedent’s peritoneal mesothelioma: these opinions are based on an untested hypothesis that lacks any indicia of reliability and, therefore, should not have been admitted. The court denied Honeywell’s appeal and noted similar criticisms were also rejected by this court in Walker v. Ford Motor Co., 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 100759, 2014-Ohio-4208. As recognized in Walker, “an expert’s opinion need not be generally accepted in the scientific community to be sufficiently reliable” and “‘[e]ven a novel or “controversial” opinion may be reliable if founded on a proper methodology.'”(Citation omitted). “The credibility of the conclusion and the relative weight it should enjoy are determinations left to the trier of fact.” (Citation omitted). Further, Honeywell was able to challenge Dr. Bedrossian’s testimony through cross-examination and was able to present the testimony of its own expert witnesses.

Under Honeywell’s second argument, they argued the trial court erred by permitting the plaintiff’s expert, Joseph Guth, Ph.D., a certified industrial hygienist, to testify, over objections, that decedent’s father’s occasional non-occupational work with Bendix brakes created a sufficient level of dust that is substantially contributed to increasing decedent’s risk for developing peritoneal mesothelioma because such an opinion lacks any foundation in science or fact. The court again denied this appeal determining they were not persuaded by Honeywell’s argument that Dr. Guth’s opinions were not supported by peer-reviewed literature. Even had there been a lack of peer review or general acceptance by the scientific community, these are not prerequisites to admissibility, and that relevant evidence based on valid principles will satisfy the threshold reliability standard for the admission of expert testimony. The credibility to be afforded these principles and the expert’s conclusions remain a matter for the trier of fact.”(Citation omitted)

Next, Honeywell argued the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion for a directed verdict as to the plaintiff’s claims, because the plaintiff’s evidence was legally insufficient to establish that Honeywell’s product was either generally or specifically causative of the decedent’s peritoneal mesothelioma. The court stated that in cases involving exposure to a toxic substance, expert medical testimony is generally necessary to establish both general causation, i.e., that the toxic substance is capable of causing the particular disease, and specific causation, i.e., that the disease was in fact caused by the toxic substance. Further, the Ohio Supreme Court has held that for each defendant in a multi-defendant asbestos case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving exposure to the defendant’s product and that the product was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injury. Using the “substantial factor test”, the court affirmed that Schwartz’s exposure to asbestos allegedly caused from the Bendix brake product met this standard, and denied Honeywell’s appeal.

Honeywell also argued that the trial court erred denying the defendant’s motion for a directed verdict as to plaintiff’s statutory claim for design defect, and that under Ohio law, the plaintiff’s evidence at trial was legally insufficient because plaintiff failed to present any evidence that a practical and technically feasible alternative design or formulation was available at the time of use which would not have substantially impaired the usefulness or intended purpose of the defendant’s product. The court noted that a product will not be considered defective in design unless the plaintiff demonstrates that a practical and technically feasible alternative design to the product was available that would have prevented the harm for which the plaintiff seeks to recover, without substantially impairing the usefulness of the product. Additionally, expert testimony is not necessary to establish a design-defect claim if the subject matter involved is not overly complex and is within the knowledge and comprehension of a layperson. The court denied Honeywell’s appeal finding that, in this case, there was testimony and evidence showing that Bendix was manufacturing non-asbestos-containing brakes during the period of time relevant to this case. Further, there was evidence that “semi-metallics [non-asbestos-containing brakes] operate satisfactorily” in passenger cars and “[t]he improved performance of semi-metallics compensates for their higher costs[.]” In sum, there was evidence supporting the plaintiffs’ claim that a safer, practical, and technically feasible alternative design was available.

The plaintiff, Mark Schwartz, Individually and as Executor of the Estate of Kathleen Schwartz, also filed a cross-appeal arguing the trial court erred in granting a directed verdict against the plaintiffs on their claim for punitive damages where the jury heard evidence establishing that defendant acted with “conscious disregard for the rights and safety of other persons that has a great probability of causing substantial harm.” Previously in this case, Honeywell had filed a motion to dismiss the claim for punitive damages, but requested the court to bifurcate the punitive damages phase of the trial until after the compensatory damages phase concluded. The plaintiffs had no objection to the bifurcation. The trial court granted the motion to bifurcate and deferred ruling on the motion to dismiss. On appeal, the plaintiffs argue the trial court erred because there was substantial evidence in the record to support punitive damages, specifically evidence that revealed Bendix sold asbestos-containing brakes for more than 30 years after it had developed an asbestos-free alternative; that Bendix delayed placing adequate warnings on its product and delayed manufacturing asbestos-free brakes because of the cost concerns; and that Bendix engaged in the foregoing conduct after having direct knowledge that asbestos in brake dust causes mesothelioma. The court ultimately found that the plaintiffs presented substantial and competent evidence to defeat a motion for a directed verdict, and on remand, directed the trial court to conduct a new trial on the issue of punitive damages.

Read the full decision here.