The law concept background.

Defendant Denied Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages for Failure to Provide Case-Specific Support

Jurisdiction: Supreme Court of New York, New York County

Plaintiff Kevin Burns filed an asbestos-related lawsuit against numerous defendants, including Burnham, testifying that while he worked as a plumber he was exposed to asbestos insulation and rope from the removal and installation of Burnham boilers from approximately 1958 to the early 1980s.

Burnham moved for summary judgment on plaintiff’s punitive-damages claim, arguing that plaintiff failed to establish Burnham’s conduct rose to the level of egregious and morally culpable conduct necessary for an award of punitive damages. In support of its motion, Burnham relied upon a 2007 study conducted by William E. Longo, Ph.D., and argued that plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos was below the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s PEL. 

In toxic tort cases, the New York Court of Appeals has adopted a gross negligence standard for the purposes of punitive damages, holding that punitive damages are warranted when “the actor has intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow and has done so with conscious indifference to the outcome.” Maltese v Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 89 NY2d 955, 956-957, 678 N.E.2d 467, 655 N.Y.S.2d 855 (1997)(internal quotations omitted). “The purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff but to punish the defendant for wanton and reckless, malicious acts and thereby to discourage the defendant and other people, companies from acting in a similar way in the future.” Matter of 91st St. Crane Collapse Litig., 154 AD3d 139, 156, 62 N.Y.S.3d 11 (1st Dep’t 2017)(internal parentheses omitted).

The court noted in Dryer v Amchem Products Inc., 207 AD3d 408, 411, 171 N.Y.S.3d 498 (1st Dep’t 2022), the Appellate Division, First Department held that to succeed on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must support the motion with a fact specific study. Here,the court found that the Longo study provided no relevant information regarding the specific products at issue, or the specific circumstances, in which the plaintiff was allegedly exposed to asbestos through Burnham’s boilers.

Thus, the court concluded that Burnham failed to proffer sufficient evidence to establish entitlement to summary judgmenton the punitive damages claim and the motion was denied.

Read the full decision here.