$3.5 Million Punitive Damages Upheld Against Brake Manufacturer on Appeal

James Phillips was diagnosed with mesothelioma in March of 2012 and died in February of 2013. In May of 2012, Phillips and his wife, Charity Phillips, filed a complaint seeking damages for personal injuries caused by asbestos in the Superior Court of Fresno County, California. In May 2013, after Phillips’s death, Charity, individually and as the personal representative of his estate, filed a first amended complaint alleging negligence and strict liability. The first amended complaint named more than 25 defendants engaged in the manufacture or supply of products containing asbestos. Defendant Honeywell was sued individually and as the successor-in-interest to The Bendix Corporation, a manufacturer of automotive brakes. Bendix brakes were among the asbestos-containing products to which Phillips was exposed.

In May 2014, the jury completed a special verdict form that addressed the plaintiffs’ negligence claim and three separate theories of strict liability. As to negligence, the jury expressly found (1) Phillips had been exposed to asbestos from Bendix brakes; (2) Bendix was negligent in manufacturing or selling asbestos-containing brakes; and (3) Bendix’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing harm to Phillips. The plaintiffs’ other successful legal theory was strict liability based on the failure to warn. The court determined Honeywell was liable for $1,961,550 in noneconomic damages, $414,990 in economic damages, and $3.5 million in punitive damages.

Honeywell appealed contending a new trial is warranted because (1) the jury’s special verdict was fatally inconsistent; (2) the trial court erroneously refused to give its proposed jury instruction on the factors relevant to causation; and (3) the trial court erroneously admitted prejudicial evidence. Moreover, Honeywell contended judgment should be entered in its favor because the verdict was based entirely on a failure to warn theory that lacked sufficient evidentiary support. If judgment is not entered in its favor, Honeywell contended the $3.5 million award of punitive damages must be reversed because the plaintiffs failed to introduce sufficient evidence of malice or oppression.

The crux of Honeywell’s evidentiary claims stems from the admission of a 1966 letter of a Bendix employee sarcastically addressing an article in Chemical Week magazine that stated asbestos had been accused, but not yet convicted, as a significant health hazard. The letter is circumstantial evidence relevant to the issue of Bendix’s awareness of asbestos’s potential to cause cancer. Other courts, specifically Illinois and Florida, had held this letter was prejudicial. However, this court found that the use of the limiting instruction by the trial court distinguished this situation. Further, the trial court properly admitted the testimony of the plaintiffs’ expert about causation and the contributions to Phillips’s risk of cancer from every identified exposure to asbestos that Phillips experienced. The application of every-identified-exposure theory in this case was consistent with California law addressing proof of causation in asbestos-related cancer cases.

In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the Fifth Appellate District California Court of Appeal rejected Honeywell’s other contentions. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment.

Read the full decision here.