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Boiler Manufacturer’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment re: Punitive Damages Denied

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Supreme Court of New York, New York County

In this asbestos action, defendant Burnham, LLC moved for partial summary judgment to dismiss the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim on the basis that any alleged asbestos exposure from Burnham boilers would fall below TLV or PEL/OSHA limits, and that Burnham did not have workers’ compensation claims for asbestos-related disease.

The court, however, determined that “Burnham has plainly not met their burden at summary judgment.” According to the court, TLV/OSHA standards have “little bearing on plaintiff’s unequivocal and consistent testimony regarding his work with Burnham boilers and his specific exposure therein.” Moreover, “the lack of compensation claims from Burnham’s employees are wholly irrelevant to moving defendant’s conduct as manufacturers of asbestos-containing boilers.” Finally, the court noted that “plaintiff correctly argues that a single study conducted by William E. Longo, PhD in 2007 is insufficient to support partial summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages herein” as Dr. Longo conceded that “he never conducted any studies on a Burnham boiler” during his deposition.

To succeed on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must support the motion with a fact specific study. See Dyer v. Amchem Products, Inc., 171 N.Y.S.3d 498 (1st Dep’t 2022). According to the court, Dr. Longo’s study provided “no relevant information regarding the specific products at issue herein, and the specific circumstances in which the instant plaintiff was exposed to asbestos through defendant Burnham’s boiler.” In addition, the court found that the plaintiff proffered evidence to raise questions of fact as to defendant Burnham’s prior knowledge of and participation in the use of asbestos-containing boiler parts.

The court also noted that where a plaintiff provides evidentiary facts tending to show that the defendant’s warnings were in any way deficient, the adequacy of such warnings is a factual question that should be resolved by a jury. In fact, the New York Court of Appeals has held that “a products liability action found on a failure to warn involves conduct of the defendant having attributes of negligence which the jury may find sufficiently wanton or reckless to sustain an award of punitive damages.” Home Ins. Co Am. Home Products Corp., 551 N.Y.S2d 481 (1990). Here, the plaintiff proffered evidence that demonstrated that defendant Burnham failed to warn the plaintiff of the hazards of asbestos. Moreover, during the deposition of Burnham’s corporate representative, Mr. Sweigart, Mr. Sweigart was asked whether it was correct that Burnham never put a warning regarding the hazards of asbestos on any of its boilers. Mr. Sweigart answered, “that is correct.” For all of these reasons, the court ultimately determined that a reasonable juror could find that Burnham’s knowledge and use of asbestos in their boilers “constituted a prioritization of their corporate benefits over plaintiff’s safety” and that issues of fact exist to preclude summary judgment. Thus, Burnham’s motion was denied in its entirety.

Read the full decision here.