By John W. Scanlan, J.D.
A Missouri jury’s award of $10 million in punitive damages to the widow of a former Navy machinist who died of mesothelioma as the result of having worked with asbestos-containing gaskets made by Crane Co. was upheld by a Missouri appellate court, which found that the award was justified by the company’s conduct and was not unfairly large. The court also declined Crane’s requests for a new trial or reversal of the judgment (Poage v. Crane Co., May 2, 2017, Dolan, C.).
The decedent served in the U.S. Navy as a machinist aboard the USS Haynsworth from 1954 to 1958, during which he helped maintain the valves by replacing gaskets and packing. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma and died in 2012, prior to the suit being filed and before he could be deposed. His widow brought negligence and strict liability design defect and failure to warn claims against Crane Co., asserting that her deceased husband’s illness resulted from exposure to asbestos dust from working on asbestos-containing gaskets and packets manufactured by Crane.
After a trial, the jury awarded her $1.5 million in compensatory damages (later reduced by the court to $822,500 based on her settlements with joint tortfeasors) and $10 million in punitive damages. The trial court overruled all of Crane’s post-trial motions, and the company appealed. Arguing that the decedent’s widow had not proved breach of duty and causation claims, Crane asked for a new trial or at least a reversal of the trial court’s judgment, along with the elimination or a substantial reduction in the punitive damages award.
Submissible claim. The appeals court first determined that the widow had not failed to make a submissible claim because she had established cause in fact, proximate cause, and the existence of a duty owed by Crane to the deceased machinist. Testimony by another machinist who had served with the decedent that they spent four years working together on every valve in the ship’s engine room—including Crane valves—was sufficient to establish that those valves were a substantial factor in causing the decedent’s mesothelioma.
Furthermore, evidence presented by the widow showing that Crane had sold many asbestos-containing valves to the Navy and that the valves had been installed on the Haynsworth was sufficient for a jury to conclude that, at a minimum, Crane valves directly contributed to the decedent’s illness. The jury had sufficient evidence to conclude that the valves were defective: although Crane argued that there was no evidence that the use of asbestos-containing gaskets and packing were required aboard the ship, a Crane representative testified that the company had specified the use of asbestos-containing components in its design drawings for some valves used on the ship, and an expert for the widow testified that asbestos-containing gaskets and packing were required for the valves to properly function for a full range of applications.
A jury also could conclude from the evidence that the decedent would have heeded a proper warning of the unreasonable danger presented by the valves if one had been given. As the seller of a valve containing asbestos gaskets and packing and of a valve that required replacement of asbestos gaskets and packing, Crane owed consumers like the deceased machinist a duty to warn and a duty to produce products without a defective design that created an unreasonable danger, and there was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that Crane had breached those duties.
Punitive damages. The appeals court also upheld both the jury’s finding that punitive damages were warranted as well as the size of the award. Testimony by a Crane representative about various documents, along with testimony by an historian and an industrial hygienist for the widow, provided evidence of Crane’s knowledge of the dangers of asbestos going back many years, from which a jury could conclude with clear conviction that the company’s actions had been committed with conscious disregard or complete indifference. The court disagreed with Crane’s assertion that the punitive damages award was based at least in part on alleged harm to other persons, finding that the widow’s counsel’s closing argument illustrated the alleged reprehensibility of Crane’s conduct by showing that it was repeated rather than an isolated incident; the court noted that Crane had waived this argument anyway by failing to make a timely objection.
In addition, the appellate court did not find the award violated due process, was unfairly large, or exceeded the state’s statutory cap. There was a significant degree of reprehensibility in Crane’s conduct: the harm was physical, not merely monetary; Crane had knowledge of the danger of asbestos when it put the product into the stream of commerce; and Crane regularly introduced asbestos-containing products into the stream of commerce. A large punitive damages award was necessary to deter a large company like Crane, which had revenues exceeding $2.5 million per year in several recent years.
Mesothelioma is a "gruesome" disease, and the fact that the lengthy period of time between asbestos exposure and the appearance of symptoms makes detecting the harm more difficult justified a heavier punitive damages award. Nothing in the list of nonexclusive list of factors considered by Missouri courts in weighing whether a trial court should have denied remittur indicated that the trial court’s verdict was so "grossly excessive that it shocked the conscience of the court."
Moreover, the award was not subject to the statutory cap on damages. Crane asserted that the exception for "aggravating circumstances damages" in wrongful death suits did not apply because the widow did not mention "aggravating circumstances damages" at trial or in her requested jury instructions. However, the court reasoned that this would elevate form over substance because asking a jury to determine the amount of punitive damages essentially is the same as asking it to determine the amount of aggravating circumstances damages, and the remedial purpose of the statute would best be served by including the latter term in the meaning of punitive damages as used in the jury instructions.
Offset. Finally, Crane had no legal right to a reduction of the amount of the judgment. Crane argued that it was entitled to a larger reduction from the $1.5 million compensatory damages award than the $677,500 received from joint tortfeasors by the potential future value of unsettled claims that the widow would receive in the future from asbestos trusts. However, the plain language of the statute could not be interpreted as requiring a reduction for settlements that had not been reached because this reduction would be speculative and in conflict with the long-standing principle that a plaintiff may sue any joint or current tortfeasor he or she chooses and may obtain a judgment against any or all of them. Otherwise, the widow would be required to incur additional litigation effort and expenses in order to secure the full amount of her judgment. The court declined to address any equitable arguments for reduction or setoff because none is available in equity when there is a statutory setoff.
The case is No. ED103953.
Attorneys: Benjamin Robert Schmickle (SWMW Law, LLC) for Jeanette G. Poage. Robert T. Haar (Haar & Woods, LLP) for Crane Co.
Companies: Crane Co.
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