Money-wrapped by gavel

Finding of Limited Exposure Entitles Defendant to Dismissal of Punitive Damages

Supreme Court of New York, New York County, January 12, 2022

The defendant Graybar Electric Company filed a motion for partial summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages ought to be dismissed citing that punitive damages are inappropriate because the plaintiff only encountered Graybar’s product once during his career. The plaintiff’s opposition argued that issues of fact remain regarding the plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos-containing cement pipe that was sold and distributed by Graybar. The plaintiff contended that Graybar merely pointed to gaps in the plaintiff’s proof and failed to meet its burden to obtain summary judgment in its favor.

After examining the applicable standard of review for a motion for summary judgment, the court turned to the issue of punitive damages. The Appellate Division, First Department, has held that it is “singularly rare cases where punitive damages are warranted by extreme aggravating factors such as improper state of mind or malice.” Maltese v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 225 AD2d 414, 415, 640 N.Y.S.2d 488 (Pt Dep’t 1996) affd, 89 NY2d 955, 678 N.E.2d 467, 655 N.Y.S.2d 855 (1997) (internal citations and quotations omitted). In that case, the Appellate Division set aside a jury award for punitive damages, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that evidence of a defendant’s “general awareness that exposure to high concentrations of asbestos over long periods of time could cause injury” was insufficient to support a finding of punitive damages. See Maltese, 89 NY2d at 957, 678 N.E.2d at 467, 655 N.Y.S.2d at 855.

The court considered the plaintiff’s deposition, in which he revealed that the only time he encountered a Graybar truck was in 1977, when he unloaded Korduct, a cement pipe, from the Graybar truck along with his co-workers. Punitive damages must be considered on a case-by-case basis, and due to the plaintiff’s limited contact with, and exposure to, Graybar’s product, the court found that Graybar had established that its conduct towards the plaintiff did not rise to the “high threshold of moral culpability” required for an award of punitive damages. Even if Graybar had a general knowledge that prolonged exposure to asbestos could cause an injury, this is insufficient to support a finding of punitive damages. The plaintiff’s deposition testimony established that Graybar’s conduct with relation to this plaintiff did not rise to the level necessary to establish punitive damages. The court therefore granted Graybar’s motion for partial summary judgment pursuant to CPLR 3212, dismissing the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim against it.

Read the full decision here.