Punitive Damages Not Allowed Against Bendix; Memos Showed a Corporation Struggling With Evolving Science on Asbestos and Mesothelioma U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, April 4, 2016
The plaintiff alleged that her husband was exposed to asbestos from brakes, and as a result died from mesothelioma. She sued Honeywell International, as successor-in-interest to Bendix, alleging negligence, breach of implied warranty, fraud, failure to warn, and wrongful death, and asked for actual and punitive damages. Bendix moved for summary judgment on the breach of implied warranty, fraud, and failure to warn claims, and punitive damages claims. The court denied summary judgment as to the breach of implied warranty and products liability claims, but granted summary judgment as to the punitive damages and fraud claims.
Regarding punitive damages, the plaintiff argued the lack of adequate warnings and the sale of defective replacement brakes was willful and wanton. Under North Carolina law, in the case of a claim against a corporation, the plaintiffs must demonstrate that officers, directors, or managers condoned the conduct constituting the aggravating factor giving rise to punitives. Here, the court noted: “The internal memos she proffers tend to show a corporation struggling to understand evolving scientific knowledge about asbestos and mesothelioma … and while they do not suggest Bendix was proactive, neither do these internal communications show an active “concealment or misrepresentation of facts regarding the dangers of asbestos in the brakes.” Summary judgment was granted on this claim. The plaintiff did not contest the summary judgment motion on the fraud claim, and it was likewise granted.
The plaintiff argued Bendix sold asbestos-containing brakes without adequate warnings, thus breaching the implied warranty of merchantability. The evidence showed that Bendix provided warnings from 1973-86 that breathing asbestos dust could cause serious bodily harm; these warnings did not include asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma, and there was a factual dispute regarding whether the warnings were prominently located. Although Bendix argued its warnings complied with OSHA standards, this was not conclusive evidence that the warnings were adequate. Thus, a genuine issue of material fact existed. Bendix also moved for summary judgment on negligence due to failure to warn, which was likewise denied.
The plaintiff also alleged a product liability claim based on inadequate design; Bendix argued this claim must fail because the plaintiff did not show a feasible alternative design through competent expert testimony. However, North Carolina law did not require expert testimony to prove defective design, but provided seven non-exclusive factors to consider. While the plaintiff did not produce evidence for all of these factors, she did make a sufficient forecast of evidence to survive summary judgment