Court Provides Mixed Ruling on Motions for Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages Brought by Boiler Manufacturers

The Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County in Pennsylvania recently ruled on partial motions for summary judgment with respect to punitive damages asserted by the paintiffs, Robert Horst, Jr. and Diane Horst. Defendants filing said motions included Burnham, LLC , Lennox Industries, Inc., and Weil-McLain.

The court stated that, in Pennsylvania, a punitive damages claim must be supported by evidence sufficient to establish that (1) a defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that (2) a defendant acted, or failed to act as the case may be, in conscious disregard that risk. Further, in asbestos litigation, both the Supreme Court and Superior Court in Pennsylvania have held that the existence of medical articles and trade journal publications discussing the dangers of asbestos inhalation are insufficient to support a punitive damages claim absent some proof that the asbestos defendant knew or had reason to know of the content of that literature. [Citation Omitted].

Burnham’s motion for partial summary judgment as to the plaintiff’s claims for punitive damages was granted. Here, the plaintiff relied upon prior deposition testimony from Burnham’s chief engineer of its commercial engineering department, Roderick G. Strohl, who stated he first had concerns about the dangers of asbestos “probably in the 1970s.” The plaintiff’s alleged exposure was between 1970-1978. Strohl further testified that he did not know whether Burnham complied with OSHA regulations relating to asbestos during that time period. It’s important to note that Strohl did not begin his employment with Burnham until 1984 and provided no testimony regarding Burnham’s knowledge prior to 1984. The court found this evidence alone was insufficient to indicate Burnham had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm from the plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos.

Conversely, the court denied Lennox’s motion. With respect to Lennox, the plaintiff produced evidence establishing that managerial representatives of Lennox were aware that asbestos reportedly caused lung diseases prior to and during the 1970-1978 period of the plaintiff’s exposure. Specifically, the plaintiff relied upon correspondence between Lennox management and the manager of Occupational Environmental Control of Johns-Manville Corporation dated in January 1969 identifying an article discussing health problems associated with occupational exposure to asbestos. Additionally, at the time of oral argument, Lennox’s counsel conceded that Lennox did not place asbestos-related warnings on its products, but maintained there was no reason to warn. The court found, upon the documentary proof submitted, there was a genuine issue of material fact whether Lennox management had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm from exposure to asbestos.

The court similarly denied Weil-McLain’s motion. Here, the plaintiff’s claim was premised upon the prior deposition transcript of Weil-McLain’s corporate representative, Paul H. Schuelke. This testimony suggested that (1) Weil-McLain knew that asbestos caused lung diseases as of 1972 but did not include warnings on its asbestos cement or rope at the time; (2) In 1974, OSHA cited Weil-McLain for maintaining asbestos levels above acceptable limit; and (3)Weil-McLain did not provide warnings/instructions on their boilers containing asbestos. The court found this to be sufficient to establish factual issues regarding Weil-McLain’s subjective appreciate of the risk of harm from the plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos.

Read the full decision here.